What are your numbers? Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

People have many numbers to remember but the most important may be those needed to live a healthy lifestyle — weight, blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol use, and a healthy amount of exercise. These factors contribute to the majority of health issues in the country today, including heart disease and diabetes.

One way to learn your numbers is through a health screening, which can be done online, on paper or even at an employer work site. Health screenings also provide feedback on how to live a healthier lifestyle.

“Health screenings are a good self-awareness tool because, oftentimes, people don’t get a chance to examine where they are in life and how they are behaving, except during a physical exam,” says Robert Van Eck, associate vice president of employer services and population management at Priority Health. “Employers can also use aggregate employee reports to implement wellness activities and initiatives within the workplace.”

Smart Business spoke with Van Eck about how to use health screenings to promote a culture of wellness within your company.

What kind of information is collected during a health screening?

The first type, a health risk appraisal, looks at three main areas of information: demographics, clinical and behaviors. The demographics area looks at age, gender, sometimes ethnicity, existing conditions and other basic background information of the individual.

Clinical topics assess weight, height and cholesterol levels. The health behaviors area reviews a person’s tobacco use, dietary patterns and exercise habits.

Another source of information is the biometric screening, during which a health professional compiles an individual’s vital statistics. This usually involves measuring weight and blood pressure, and sometimes getting a cholesterol or glucose level.

These screenings collect information more credibly and reliably but have fewer points of information. This can oftentimes be done at an employer’s work site. Screenings should typically be done once a year.

Screenings are an important way for employees to receive feedback. They will either receive responses online, or have someone go over the results following the screening. This gives them information on their greatest health risks and conditions.

What is the advantage of offering health screenings at the work site?

Having somebody on site walk through a process engages employees better. It’s easy to do a paper and try to buzz through it, but there’s not a lot of interactivity. On-site biometric screenings are a great way to engage employees with people who are knowledgeable about health, who are understanding and who can gently convey messages such as letting them know they’re doing a good job or that they need to develop a plan. It’s face-to-face accountability, discussion and an opportunity for employees to ask questions.

It also creates a better social environment for that culture of change. Health screenings are often done in a large room where employees are going from one station to the next, and they’re seeing their colleagues, so there’s a social factor. Employees start talking about their numbers and risk levels, and asking colleagues to take part in future health activities with them. It goes from a self-awareness tool to an activity, culture and social environment.

Why is it important for employers and employees to know their numbers?

Employees should know these numbers because they will impact their health, quality of life, longevity and health care costs. People with five risk factors cost double what people with only two risk factors do to a health plan.

Employers won’t see individual statistics; rather, they receive an aggregate report from the health risk appraisals and biometric screenings. They may receive information on what percentage of their employees are obese compared to the national or plan average, or what percentage smoke or exercise three or more days a week.

Employers can then use these numbers to implement the appropriate activities and initiatives to help employees get better and decrease health care costs.

How can you use an aggregate employee health report to encourage changes within the employee population?

You should definitely act on the information. It doesn’t make an impact if you have the information and do nothing with it. Promote wellness by getting classes and challenges, or by offering incentives to employees involved in certain health activities.

Some employers might be hesitant because they believe employees might wonder if they will be judged by their numbers. You should ensure employees that you do not have specific information, and you should also engage them in some point of the health planning.

You might want to develop a health or wellness committee to discuss the results and decide what wellness activities to implement. It’s important to get employees involved, so activities are planned in the context of creating a culture of wellness.

How can you encourage employees to take advantage of health screenings?

People don’t typically take health screenings just because they want to, so you need to dangle a carrot out there. You might want to give a simple incentive for employees taking a health risk appraisal or biometric screening. Incentives are mainly financial rewards, but can also include gift cards or other goods.

It can also be built into other incentives that you establish for taking part in wellness activities.

Robert Van Eck is associate vice president of employer services and population management at Priority Health. Reach him at (616) 464-8204 or bob.vaneck@priorityhealth.com.