Employees are split on whether employer wellness programs intrude on privacy, according to an Issue Brief from the Center for Studying Health System Change (CSHC).

Health and Wellness: the shift from managing illness to promoting health details the results of interviews conducted in 12 metropolitan American communities in 2007: Boston, Cleveland, Greenville, Indianapolis, Lansing, Little Rock, Miami, northern New Jersey, Orange County, Phoenix, Seattle, and Syracuse.

Employee wellness programs are growing in the marketplace as employers try to stem ever-increasing costs, both direct and indirect. This is real money: a report from the American Hospital Association estimated that three chronic diseases—asthma, diabetes and hypertension — accounted for 164 million days of absenteeism each year which cost cost employers $30 billion.

The New Employer Wellness Programs go beyond the archetype health fairs, blood pressure screenings, and brown-bag lunch information sessions. This new era in wellness is focusing on health risk assessments, with an aggressive focus on weight management, smoking cessation and fitness.

And there’s where some people see the programs rubbing up against employee privacy.

The concerns are how the data that employees report in health risk appraisals could be used by employers. Employees are concerned that this information could be used to reduce benefits or for even more egregious purposes. This is driving health plans to develop systems to ensure enrollee privacy.

Because these programs are voluntary, employers are providing incentives to ‘nudge’ employees to join up. These prizes are typically, according to the CSHC, cash payments for the completion of a health risk assessment, gift cards, gym membership discounts, and reimbursement for weight loss
programs. It’s more carrot than stick, consistent with what behavioral economists are recommending in treatises like the book Nudge.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:
The Center points out that for employees to join up and stick with wellness programs over the long term, employers need to demonstrate these programs’ effectiveness as well as continued vigilance in keeping personal data private. In doing so, the programs will garner credibility and trust and, ultimately, drive population health up and costs down.