May 16, 2008

Panel shares fitness tips with area employers

Featured Image

Vanderbilt’s Sheree Wright, J.D., left, speaks at last week’s Wellness in the Workplace panel discussion, which also featured, from left, Mary Yarbrough, M.D., M.P.H., Colin Armstrong, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Bishop, M.D. (photo by Neil Brake)

Panel shares fitness tips with area employers

From 2003 through 2007, Vanderbilt paid $7.7 million in monthly incentives to employees through its Go for the Gold health improvement program, and during that time participants' wellness scores rose from 52.5 to 56.6.

That four-point improvement is significant. It's estimated those efforts saved Vanderbilt a cumulative $19.5 million in health care claims and lost productivity, for a net savings (after incentive costs) of $11.8 million.

It's these sorts of numbers that helped draw Middle Tennessee employers to Vanderbilt Medical Center last week for a panel discussion, Wellness in the Workplace, sponsored by Vanderbilt Corporate Relations.

The topic was “Ethical issues and challenges in the design and delivery of worksite wellness programs.”

Joel Lee, associate vice chancellor for Communications, served as moderator and began by noting that Tennessee ranks 46th among the 50 states in overall health. He informed the 80 or so attendees that VMC has embarked on a discussion, under the heading Vision 2020, about the institution's future impact on society.

“If we're going to impact health more broadly in our region, it's going to be through you,” Lee told the groups of human resources and employee benefits managers.

Lee invited the audience to join Vanderbilt in improving employee health promotion programs. He noted that because VMC directly provides health services to 75 percent of the University's 40,000 Health Plan participants, the institution is in a position to gather highly useful data on the efficacy of health promotion and disease management efforts, and that Vanderbilt is open to sharing its findings with other employers.

Mary Yarbrough, M.D., M.P.H., executive director of Health and Wellness, told the group that employee wellness advocates need to be able to speak the language of the boardroom.

At Vanderbilt, she said, employee health and wellness programs support employee recruitment and retention, help to reduce modifiable health risks of health plan participants, increase productivity and lower health benefits costs. She said the priorities are to promote exercise, stress reduction and good nutrition.

Colin Armstrong, Ph.D., director of Health Psychology Services at Vanderbilt Dayani Center for Health and Wellness, spoke about what motivates people to exercise. Exercise gurus lose their attraction after a while. Most home exercise equipment is gathering dust. Most health club memberships go unused.

“People think of motivation as something you're born with or without. It's not true,” Armstrong said. We may be well motivated to mow the lawn while completely lacking motivation to vacuum the rug; that is, motivation is specific to behavior. For all of us, motivation ebbs and flows.

“Motivation is not a one-time thing. It's a fire that needs to be fed,” he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American men average 16 minutes of exercise per day and watch 3.5 hours of TV. Armstrong said it's important to provide employees motivation in the form of awareness-raising activities such as health screenings, classes and incentives, and to provide opportunities, including places to exercise and healthy menu options in the cafeteria. If more people perceive exercise as important, more will exercise, he said.

Jeffrey Bishop, M.D., director of the Clinical Ethics Education and Consultation Services with the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, noted that the last thing a doctor wants to show his patients is a moralizing attitude, because it causes patients to withdraw. He said health promotion programs should take care not to force unhealthy behaviors into hiding. Bishop also brought complexities of daily life into the discussion, telling a story of a woman ultimately diagnosed as clinically depressed after dealing with the competing demands of work, children, marriage and the care of an aging parent.

Sheree Wright, J.D., University counsel, spoke about some legal issues surrounding employment and health. In answer to questions from the audience, she voiced doubt that mandatory employee health risk assessments would become established practice for American employers.