Lessons in wellness

January 1, 2011

Health professionals at the University of Kansas Hospital are looking within themselves to improve their own personal health

Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease," according to Hippocrates, history's first known physician.

Health professionals at the University of Kansas Hospital (KUMed) see natural forces at work among their patients every day, and now their employer is urging them to look within themselves to improve their own personal health. With more than 5,000 employees, KUMed has the same goal as any of its non-healthcare counterparts: reduced costs and a healthier workforce. And like many employers, it has adopted a companywide wellness effort.

In 2007, this teaching hospital began its employee program with health risk assessments and onsite health screenings, as most employers do. It offered a $120 premium discount as an incentive and was able to achieve a 50% participation rate. By the following year, it had identified health conditions within the population with higher prevalence than benchmarked national averages, including overweight, cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol.

"Our philosophy was to try and align our policies and practices in the organization with regard to wellness to start bending the cost curve," says Dwight Kasperbauer, vice president of operations and chief human resources executive. "That's been talked about a lot, and we felt that wellness would provide an opportunity for alignment. We also talked about productivity gains that are associated with wellness, and also equally important, it's socially responsible and the right thing to do. In doing all of these things, what we're really trying to achieve is to become an employer of choice."

In time for the 2010 plan year, KUMed increased the "Be Healthy: A Healthier You" incentive to a $240 premium reduction. More than 71% of employees participated.

Beginning this plan year, however, they've upped the ante. Not only has the incentive doubled to $480, but now the requirements to earn the incentive also include a healthy waist circumference and body mass index (BMI). Those who do not meet the new requirements can still earn the incentive by achieving roughly a 10-pound weight loss or by participating in a choice of education, coaching and wellness challenges.

"We've made some small shifts, but not huge ones," says Alisa Ford, senior director of human resources for KUMed. "This year because we've increased the incentives and we've required people to participate in wellness during the year, hopefully we'll get that engagement. Employees will start to see some changes in their health. I'm anticipating and hopeful that we'll see a big shift in numbers."

For example, in 2009, the number of smokers had dropped by 0.5%, the number of employees with high cholesterol dropped by 3%, and the number of female employees with a waist circumference of 35 inches or more dropped 4%.

KUMed is unique in that its program goes beyond rewarding employees just for signing up. There is now an expectation that employees need to maintain or achieve some measurable health metric-such as a healthy BMI-or be actively participating in activities to help them get there.