The study was published in the March/April edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion.
Grana says the measuring ROI on wellness programs has been difficult because it often takes years to see the results. "When you start to talk about a return on investment you will want to evaluate and measure your wellness program knowing it takes time to change behavior," she says. "You have to allow for the fact that it usually takes three to five years of good participation to even begin to move the needle and demonstrate a return on investment."
"It is all about changing behavior, and that takes time," Grana says. "It could take several attempts for people to quit smoking or lose weight. It is not something you will necessarily see overnight. But if you keep at it you will be able to see that you are moving the needle, and that can equate to some dollars saved."
Highmark evaluated the impact of wellness programs on healthcare costs and utilization over time by matching approximately 10,000 wellness program participants at 47 Highmark employer groups with a risk-matched comparison group. The employers offered Web-based wellness programs from Highmark to their employees consistently for at least three or more years.
The study found that wellness program participants used services such as preventive physicals, mammograms and cancer screenings more than their comparison group counterparts, possibly as a result of self-care knowledge obtained from their worksite wellness programs. While these preventive care measures often cost employers more in the short term, they can help save on longer-term healthcare costs.
Grana says that Highmark data show that successful wellness programs almost always start with a health risk assessment that could be combined with biometric screenings. "It's important to follow up with the 'what's next?' with the data," she says. "Whether it's a digital coaching program that a worker can access that deals with topics like binge eating or weight management or insomnia, or it could be telephonic coaching, or employer-sponsored worksite programs. (Making) them aware of the resources that are readily available for them is crucial."