Junkfood Science: A look at some of the companies behind your employer’s wellness program

May 15, 2008

A look at some of the companies behind your employer’s wellness program

You might be interested in the latest preventive health and wellness management companies marketing themselves directly to your employer. Delivered to employer in-boxes over recent weeks:

Targeting fat employees or those who call in sick

This first company tells employers it will improve their worker productivity and company profits by managing the health, disability and absenteeism of employees and teach them how to make healthier decisions.

On its “About us” webpage, it says it has identified trends that negatively affect employers: obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but that workplaces need to develop a prevention mindset. So, it pieced together the products of several vendors to enable it to compile health information and productivity data on all employees and provide them to employers. The “advantage” to employees, it says, is that they only have to share their private information once and then would have a nurse health coach to counsel them on healthy diets and lifestyles, who would work to preserve the company’s most important asset: the health and well-being of workers.

Through its partner (GatesMcDonald, an Ohio insurance claim management company), it will monitor unplanned absences, health risk assessments, and pharmacy and medical claims data to target employees for intervention. “Until now, no company had thought to use absence management this way,” it says. [Although it is nearly identical to another absenteeism and productivity management company covered here.]

Last year, it merged with the company founded by its Chief Medical Officer, INTERVENT, a health management company that does screenings, health risk assessments and lifestyle coaching. It also partnered with the American Heart Association (the CMO was also former chairman of the AHA Committee on exercise). This has allowed it to “build a culture of health with the association’s new ‘Fit Friendly’ certification,” it says. It also offers generic pharmacy management.

The company’s leadership team is also introduced, along with descriptions of their exemplary lifestyles: low-fat diets and eating healthy, one finds ways to keep moving all day, another does gym work-outs six times a week along with several sports, another rides his bike every day, another jogs daily, another is a mountain climber, one’s an exercise trainer, another does aerobic classes and weight training with a personal trainer, and a marathon runner says she also “eats a steady diet of fruits and vegetables.” How many are aged, disabled or disadvantaged?

Fat people appear especially unwelcome. A recent press release describes their vision of workplaces as a “solution to unhealthy lifestyle habits.” Citing a growing obesity epidemic, it claims fat people miss double the work as normal weight employees and cost employers additional billions of dollars in lost productivity, and that employers can put an end to this. It illustrates the bad habits of employees by saying a survey found that 72% of employees eat an “unhealthy snack” at least three times a week. “Leading a healthy lifestyle is crucial to long-term weight management,” it says. Among its products is an "obesity management program," based on getting fat people to make healthy behavior changes, with intensive health coaching sessions and action plans for eating and exercises. According to its website, “obesity is a killer” and can cut up to 20 years off a person’s life.

It changed its name in 2006 to Nationwide Better Health to reflect it’s new vision: "Leading the way to a healthier, more productive nation…one person at a time."

They are serious.

Biogenetic screenings

Another company promises employers it will connect them to the health of their employees and keep them informed. BioIQ offers biometric* screening tests that promise to screen employees for key health conditions, orders tests to monitor those conditions and offers a “complete communication continuum” to monitor employees.

“You send one introductory message [to the employee] and we handle the rest,” it tells employers. Employees will receive screening tests and online health assessments to identify risk factors and it will “set a baseline for improvement” and map their health metrics.

Employers will receive biometric data about the health of their employees and “a complete communications package for promoting the program and enforcing compliance.” Their package can also be incorporated with corporate wellness programs, disease management and health coaching. This company’s health management partners that are not named on its website.

On February 20th, however, the company issued a press release announcing $2.5 million in financing from venture capital firm, Great Pacific Capital, run by the founder of Fastclick (which is said to install spyware onto computers and install itself onto computers “and does considerable harm to its security and privacy”). This managing partner now sits on the BioIQ board. The company’s spokesperson said it plans on expanding its biometric screening and wellness management to corporations and directly to consumers. In a March 6th interview with the co-founder, president and CEO of the company, said their company was founded in 2005 and their screenings use “evidence based medical protocols.”

BioIQ is part of National Corporate Wellness, a collaborative of wellness, health risk assessment, diet and weight management, and alternative (CAM) companies, that includes Welcoa (Wellness Council of America), Real Living Nutrition Services (an online weight loss program), and Health Action (an integrative-alternative medicine wellness company offering circle of life wellness coaching and coach certifications). National Corporate Wellness president is Michael G. Framberger, author and creator of the Get Happy, Get Healthy, Be Wealthy system, and who certifies wellness agents.

Preventive health and “wellness,” and lifestyle medicine is the latest health field. It’s a lucrative $50 billion market rife with fringe but short on sound science or proven benefits for us.

* Background information on commercial genetic screening and profiling here and here, surveillance and reporting here, and how your biometric information can be used here and here. Another company pairing health risk assessments with biometric data, and the scientific and ethical issues, covered here.

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