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Biometric Blunders

The biometric screening – the undisputed heavyweight champ of wellness program measurement, right? Well, the champ does pack a powerful punch, but there are several chinks in his armor.

The biometric promise goes something like this, “For only $50 per employee, a few minutes per screening and a couple drops of blood, you’ll empower members to “Know their numbers!” They’ll have a wake-up call and become aware of risk factors, suddenly motivating them to adopt healthier lifestyles. From there, high-risk members will be “invited” to join disease-management programs. It will be glorious!” Who could argue with that logic? We’ll take a stab.

First, we concede that biometrics provide rock-solid, validated data. A handful of “ticking time bombs” will have their lives saved by biometrics. A few high-risk individuals will access necessary medical care and a few more will enter disease-management programs. Good, good and good. In fact, click here to see how we’ve rebooted biometrics to ensure that people not only know their numbers, but get inspired to IMPROVE their numbers.

Now for the bad and the ugly...

Top 7 reasons to beware biometrics

1. Biometrics increase RX costs

We’re all supposed to “know our numbers,” right? Careful what you wish for. As soon as people become aware of their biometric numbers (e.g. Your total cholesterol is 240 – you need Lipitor!) they usually do one of three things:

  1. Revert back to previous health habits immediately
  2. Seek medical care to treat symptoms (read: drugs)
  3. Use the “wake-up call” to improve health habits

The vast majority of people choose #1 or #2. This is human nature, as people prefer to treat their risks rather than reversing them through lifestyle changes. How are risks treated in this country? Drugs – and lots of ‘em. Therefore, brace yourself for a perpetually sustained spike in Rx expenses immediately following your company’s biometric screenings.

2. Awareness does not lead to action

Upwards of 70% of health risks are preventable and reversible through lifestyle changes. However, don’t get your hopes up that employees will be scared by their biometric results and suddenly transform their lives forever. For every story we hear about a “ticking time bomb” who rushed to the doctor to prevent impending doom, there are hundreds of others about folks identified with 3 or more risk factors who quietly drift into the shadows, bury their heads in the sand, refusing to alter life-long health habits.

Recalibrate expectations. Newfound fears may catalyze flash-in-the-pan behavior changes, but rarely lead to improved long-term health habits. Be sure to offer stimulating, inspiring behavior-change programs in conjunction with biometrics.

3. Biometrics break the bank

At $40 to $50 per biometric test per employee, plus the cost of time and energy to coordinate the screening events, biometrics aren’t cheap. If you’re flush with cash (despite our delightful double-dip recession), by all means go for it. Just make sure not to implement biometrics on a standalone basis with no engagement tools thereafter. You’ll have droves of employees who suddenly, “Know their numbers” but scratch their heads wondering, “Now what do I do?”

If you want the biggest bang for your buck, we recommend allocating your $50 per employee towards a fun, high-tech, engaging wellness program that improves daily health habits. Whether you do or don’t do biometrics doesn’t alter the simple truth – the only way to realize the ROI that wellness programs promise is to treat the root cause of health care problems rather than masking the symptoms.

If you’re short on cash, why not send your employees to their PCP for an annual exam? They’ll build a stronger relationship with their doc, plus get their biometric results and have immediate access to a trained professional.

4. They measure health failures, not successes

Biometrics don’t measure the type of health that matters most to employers. They are simply lagging indicators reflecting previous health decisions. Biometrics therefore measure health failures but neglect to measure health successes. They are sensitive only to the negative aspects of one’s health such as out-of-range BMI, blood pressure, triglycerides, etc. They fail at measuring the positive aspects of health resulting from healthy lifestyle choices. What may surprise you is that two individuals with identical biometric markers may have profoundly different levels of productivity at work (and hence much different value to your organization’s bottom line). A worker who is overweight yet physically active may have the same biometric results as a worker who is thin yet sedentary. However, the physically active employee (even if overweight) is almost certainly more productive than the sedentary worker, and thus more valuable on a dollar-cost basis.

Since salaries are typically 5 to 6 times greater than health care expenses, a vital, energized, productive worker with 3 risk factors is far more valuable than a sedentary, non-productive employee with zero risk factors.

Therefore, using biometrics as the sole measurement tool to gauge wellness program success misses the mark. If you only focus on risk-factor reduction, you’re missing the greater opportunity of building an optimally productive, engaged work force.

5. Biometrics don’t predict claims

Biometrics are lagging indicators of historical health decisions. Of the 20% of employees driving 80% of claims this year, 60% of them were not high claimants in any of the previous five years. Predicting the future by analyzing the past is not as reliable as we’d like to believe. A more accurate way to predict future claims requires lifestyle analytics. A quick study of credit card receipts and bank statements would say a lot about potential future risks, since lifestyle choices are responsible for upwards of 70% of health care claims.

Imagine tracking Bob’s credit/debit card bills (or sales receipts from your on-site cafeteria). It would be abundantly clear that Bob enjoys an XXL pizza on Friday nights, orders large popcorn with extra butter at the movies, drinks 15 beers per week (although he self-reported on his health assessment that he only drinks 2-3), and never buys exercise shoes.

Wellness 3.0 will factor in lifestyle analytics because lifestyle choices are what it’s all about. Sonic Boom will be leading the charge.

6. Masking of symptoms

For every person who seeks medical care to correct poor biometric results, our country introduces one more patient to a life-long regime of medication(s). Medications put risk factors in check at the expense of galvanizing long-term behavior change.

After all, who wants to sweat 5 hours per week and eat veggies if they can pop a Lipitor once per day? Speaking of Lipitor, we’ve all seen the ad that taunts us with, “When diet and exercise aren’t enough.” Really?? What kind of “diet” are they referring to? If it’s a typical Western diet (i.e. The American diet wrought with 90% processed, nutritionally devoid food-like substances), then surely diet will never be enough. What type of “exercise” are they referring to?

If it’s a 10-minute stroll around the block at a heart rate of 85 bpm, then surely exercise will never be enough. What we wouldn’t give to have those paid actors get on the Sonic Boom diet and exercise program (please let us hold them captive for 3 months) and prove once and for all that diet and exercise are almost always enough.

7. The missing link

Q: What is the most important measure of a person’s health?
A: Wait for it….wait for it….Surprise. It’s cardiovascular fitness.

Shocking? Truth? You betcha! That’s why this section is oh-so-cleverly entitled, “Shocking Truths.” The most important measure of health is a person’s fitness level, as measured by a simple 3-minute step test or VO2 max test. An improvement in fitness drives a more substantiated and incontrovertible ROI than any reduction in risk factors. In fact, NASA recently reported that increasing physical activity levels by ½ hour per day doubles productivity in the final two hours of the day. By adding a simple, low-cost fitness test to your biometric screenings (or in lieu of blood draws), you can measure the factor most attributable to productivity AND reducing risk factors.

Takeaway: If you’re not measuring fitness level, you’re not measuring the component of health that matters most.

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