The U.S. is “drowning” in over-diagnosis and over-treatment and workplace wellness programs are partly to blame, said Al Lewis, CEO of Quizzify and author of Surviving Workplace Wellness, during a debate yesterday at the Population Health Alliance conference in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrating the return-on-investment of a wellness program has been a long sought-after metric by benefit managers and CFOs but has proven elusive, with some arguing the programs can actually do more harm than good.

“If your employees don’t want a wellness program, don’t offer it,” said Ron Goetzel, senior scientist, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who joined Lewis in what was dubbed the “great wellness ROI debate.”

Also see:How do employers rate wellness programs?

But two-thirds of employees would like employers to be more involved in health promotion, according to some soon-to-be released research, said Goetzel. And if so, successful wellness programs need to be designed “the right way” with science- and evidence-based principles, he said.

But Lewis said current wellness programs are not even breaking even and, in fact, are hurting some employers.

The wellness culture has led to the U.S. being the most over diagnosed country in the world, he said, calling out workplace wellness programs that test everyone every year as “massively over-screening people,” which could lead to false positives, unneeded medications or higher expenses for them and their employers.

“This country is drowning in over diagnosis and over treatment, raising health care costs,” he said.

Also see:How to kill a wellness program.

And while asking employees if they smoke or checking their blood pressure might not seem controversial, there is less agreement about some of the other tests included in many wellness programs.

Goetzel acknowledged there are a lot of lousy programs out there, but said there are some stellar programs too. “What we’re trying to do is figure out what works,” he said.

One theme resonating throughout the debate did focus on employers and wellness: what an employer does for the employee, not to the employee.

Also see:Progressive companies take a fresh look at what wellness really means.”

In strategizing a successful program, management is an important factor, said Goetzel. “I’m focused on prevention … going further upstream. An [employer’s] vested interest is in keeping costs down,” he said. “The most effective way is creating cultures of health where people go to work every day and come out healthier because of the culture, through leadership support and commitment, and a culture of doing everything to promote health.” 

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