Business of Well-being

Reducing Weight and Costs through Wellness Coaching

Reducing Weight and Costs through Wellness Coaching

More than 66 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese today and, if current trends continue, by the year 2048 this number would increase close to an astonishing 100 percent, according to a study by the agency of Healthcare Research and Quality. "Being overweight is not just about your appearance. It's a very real health issue with very serious health risks," said Dr. Charles Nagurka, national medical director for Wellness, OptumHealth Care Solutions. To begin, having excess weight puts individuals at an increased risk for developing many chronic health conditions, such as:

  • Cancer (breast, colon and endometrial, among other cancers)
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Dyslipidemia (high total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Gynecological problems (abnormal menstrual periods and infertility)
  • Liver and gallbladder disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea and respiratory problems
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Stroke

More than 72 million Americans are beyond overweight and classified as obese. Obesity not only affects health, it is also costly. Overweight and obese workers have medical claims seven times higher than fit workers, according to a 2007 USA Today article.

Each year, obesity is associated with 39 million lost workdays, 239 million restricted activity days, 90 million bed days and 63 million physician visits. In an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, compared with normal-weight workers, obese workers cost U.S. employers an estimated $12 billion per year in excess health-related lost productive time.

Healthier Weight Can Be Achieved

"While the statistics paint a dire picture, there is reason for hope," said Dr. Charles Nagurka, National Medical Director of OptumHealth Care Solutions. A recent study by the National Business Group on Health Survey of Employees revealed that more than 50 percent of workers say they would take advantage of health-related activities if their employers offered them. The same percentage said they would enroll in weight management programs if they were offered. That's where the OptumHealth Healthy Weight program comes in.

Healthy Weight is an intensive, non-surgical, weight management coaching solution. It focuses on changing behavior and lifestyle to produce long-lasting weight loss, reduce health risks and improve a person's quality of life. Through phone, mail and online vehicles, the Healthy Weight program helps people struggling with their weight by providing a dedicated wellness coach, personalized education, a social support network and user-friendly tools and resources to incorporate achievable healthy changes into their everyday lives.

To prove the positive effects of the Healthy Weight program, OptumHealth studied a group of program participants from January 2008 through December 2008. All data, such as height, weight and program results were self-reported. Pre- and post-program weight, body mass index (BMI), pounds lost, percentage of body weight lost and changes in BMI category were determined. While all results are preliminary and further analysis will be conducted, the study revealed some significant and promising outcomes in reducing weight and its costs.

At the program's start in January, 85 percent of the participants were obese. At the end of December 2008, the obesity rate was 74 percent - an 11 percent reduction. By the program's end, all of the members combined lost more than 14,000 pounds. Those who completed the program lost on average 9 pounds. Obese participants were 29 percent more likely than overweight or normal weight participants to lose weight.

Females were significantly more likely than males to be obese at the start of the program, but 28 percent less likely than males to lose weight. The odds of losing weight were the same across all age groups. Following is a breakdown:

  • 31 percent of those enrolled completed the program
  • Program completion took 154 days and seven calls on average
  • 45 percent were still participating at time of analysis
  • 24 percent dropped out of the program before completing all sessions of the program
  • Likelihood of completing the program did not differ by gender, age or BMI category (results are preliminary)

Of the 76 percent of those who completed the program and lost more than 1 percent of their body weight, 31 percent lost 6 percent or more of their body weight. The potential medical and pharmaceutical savings associated with participants who successfully complete a program and reduce their BMI is $357 per participant, according to a Wang et al study.

About the Participants

One-third of those eligible to participate in the Healthy Weight solution enrolled in the program. Most participants, 42 percent, were identified for the program through a health assessment, while others, 26 percent, were self-referred. The OptumHealth Disease Management program referred the other 12 percent. Two-thirds of enrollees were female and one-third was male. The average age was 49 years old, with a range of 20 to 81.

"While obesity is a serious and widespread public health problem, the OptumHealth Healthy Weight program is an effective solution for organizations that want to improve their employees' health and reduce their health care costs," Nagurka said.Additionally, program results from 2008 show demonstrable weight loss among participants and very high participant satisfaction.

OptumHealth attributes the success of the Healthy Weight program to personalized support grounded in evidence-based medicine."The Healthy Weight program addresses the full spectrum of weight management needs by blending lifestyle and clinical interventions, behavioral support and a whole-person approach," Nagurka said. "It also helps moderate escalating health care costs by addressing each employee's unique weight management needs."

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