Business of Well-being

Why Health Screening Programs Fail and What Employers Can Do About It

Employer-sponsored health insurance plans cover more than half of the country's non-elderly population, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation in its 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey. This reflects a significant expense and investment in the health, wellness, and productivity of employees.

Thus it's no surprise that many employers also offer health screening programs designed to uncover current or potential medical conditions and empower their employees to seek treatment and healthier lifestyle choices before conditions become more critical and more costly to manage.

So why do too few of these proactive programs fully live up to expectations, including anticipated return on investment (ROI)?

'Who knew it would be so hard?'

Sound familiar? We've heard that phrase a lot this year regarding healthcare, as the federal government has worked to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known to most people as the ACA or "Obamacare." But, it's also true of producing and measuring the ROI of health screenings and the wellness programs customized based on their results.

So many different factors determine the health of an individual or entire employee population, making it a challenge to track ROI directly. According to the ADP Research Institute's HR/Benefits Survey on Wellness, 79 percent of large U.S. companies and 44 percent of mid-sized U.S. companies offer wellness programs, but more than 60 percent of these companies don't measure the value achieved.

Wellness programs are something their top executives know they should offer and most of them feel the programs are helpful but they can't or don't really measure how effective. Most companies have small human resources/talent management teams focused on recruitment and annual benefits plan enrollments, with little time or tools to gather and analyze data to track trends and adjust future programs accordingly.

There are a few studies that have successfully tracked value, however. A 2014 Harvard Business Review study of 20 companies found an average annual healthcare cost increase of 1 to 2 percent for companies with wellness programs, compared to the 7-percent national average. So, it can be done.

How can your company achieve and measure its own success by offering health screenings as part of a comprehensive corporate wellness program? When designing such a program, you should consider taking these five steps:

1. Create a sustainable culture of health from the top down

Two key words here are sustainability and top-down support. From the president/CEO down through the ranks, everyone must show their commitment to healthier lifestyles, including participation in the health screenings that benchmark health status and the programs offered to improve it. Buy-in at every level makes a huge impact. This shows your company isn't just sponsoring a one-time event but is committed to an ongoing culture of health that permeates the entire organization.

There are many ways to nurture this culture of health throughout the year. For example, it doesn't help to have an annual health fair but still serve sugar-laden sodas and doughnuts at employee town hall meetings or keep filling machines with junk food. Serve more healthy choices such as fresh fruit, vegetables, and yogurt/nut health packs instead.

If you have an employee cafeteria, discuss healthier menus or change providers. Yes, this all costs more short-term, but not over time compared to lower healthcare expenditures. Another way to ingrain a culture of health throughout your organization is to include participation and lifestyle improvement among the metrics of every employee's annual review.

That may sound extreme, but with healthcare costs rising so rapidly, it's warranted - and hopefully your employees will thank you for it as their health and well-being maintains or improves. It's happening at companies such as a large energy provider serving millions of customers across several states.

The company takes wellness so seriously that it's part of each personal performance plan - for all 30,000-plus employees. Also, empower your staff with information and convenient, low- or no-cost resources. Have information readily at hand about how they can connect with community services that help diagnose, treat or support. The YM/YWCAs typically offer water aerobics classes, area clinics, and hospitals offer diabetes- and weight-management programs, and there's much more.

Many services can be brought to your offices, making it easy for those remote or frequent fliers. If you're remodeling an existing facility or building a new one, including one or more fitness rooms with equipment as well as class space for aerobics that can be offered during lunch or before and/or after the workday begins.

2. Make engagement easy

In this information age, we're all bombarded by messages, so busy employees can easily miss a single email, a bulletin board flier or a blurb in an internal newsletter. An effective wellness program should make it as easy as possible for them to get informed, enthused, signed up and screened. Different communication methods work for different people, so multiple straightforward options are needed, along with the ability to send very targeted communications to pique interest and inspire action.

Some of us respond to emails with health screening information and an appointment-scheduling link that we can use at our convenience 24/7. Others are engaged through an interactive voice response (IVR) customized message on our mobile phones, while others will sign up only through a traditional letter or personal call. One of the most effective methods is to use a customizable participant portal.

Since most of us spend significant time online, this is a familiar way not only to sign up for screenings but later have all of the pertinent information available in a single place going forward from participant results to area health services and links to lifestyle-improvement information.

Obviously, the more that constrained HR departments can leverage the automated tools available, the less costly the screenings and ongoing wellness program will be and the higher the participation rates and ROI.

3. Provide location options

As realtors know, it's all about "location, location, location." The same is true for increasing participation in health screenings. A health fair at a single site - even in multiple offices if your company has them - won't engage enough staff. A screening program should offer not only office-based events but also screenings that take place at a primary care provider's office, participating labs, and retail pharmacies.

Employers can also reach people at home by providing test kits that screen for conditions including diabetes and colorectal cancer - and can be easily completed in the privacy of the employee's home, on their own timeframe.

4. Get professional help

As noted, health screenings and ongoing wellness programs often fail because of their time-consuming complexity for human resources departments that have limited resources. An HR team of five with an inadequate budget can only do so much for a company that has 2,000, 5,000 or even 10,000 employees. (Trust me; they're out there.) There's a lot involved in managing a company-wide program.

It starts with coordinating one or more onsite events - finding approved vendors for everything from clinical staff to perform the health screening to a lab to process samples collected during screening, ensuring the chosen health coaching company has the results on hand in advance, and is prepared to explain what a participant's data means and how to act on it.

And I've already discussed the importance of engaging participants through multi-channel, customized communications. Partnering with an experienced expert to manage all of the logistical and operational aspects of health testing programs enables HR professionals to focus on other aspects of their job.

The best of these screening partners use tools and technology that make it easy for administrators and HR teams to orchestrate all program aspects from a central location - from scheduling screening events and enrolling participants to communications, tracking and sharing results, and analyzing both individual and population trends.

5. Track and measure success

Measuring the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs is an ongoing challenge, though if tracked and analyzed with the proper tools, improvements in health screening metrics can be far clearer over time. Companies well versed in health measurement often utilize the latest user-friendly analytical tools that enable program administrators to keep a pulse on their wellness program at every stage.

They can view registration details in real time, completion percentages, key participation metrics, and population-wide trends to ensure their employees are on the path to better health. The benefits of a health screening initiative that drives a comprehensive wellness program - one that addresses multiple facets of employee health (physical, mental, social, financial, etc.) - go beyond cost savings.

Many companies experience reductions in employee absenteeism and staff turnover, higher morale, and greater employee engagement. It should be considered an investment in its greatest asset - its people - and not just another cost on the balance sheet.

About the Author

Pete Desai is Chief Operating Officer of BioIQ, BioIQ simplifies health testing for health plans and enterprises of all sizes and empowers people to take action to improve their health. Pete can be reached at

Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→