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Another Option to Influence Healthy Habits

Biometric data collection can be an effective way for organizations to help employees develop healthier behavioral habits. For employers that can't afford the cost -- typically $40 to $50 per employee -- there are some alternatives.

Saturday, May 1, 2010
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Biometric screening is one of the hottest trends in worksite wellness. And for good reason -- more attention is being paid to employee health behavior and its effects on health.

Heath-assessment questionnaires often ask employees for the "big three" metrics: blood pressure, total cholesterol and weight/height for calculating body mass index. Increasingly, even more detailed lab findings may be sought, including blood glucose and HDL and LDL cholesterol -- values that go beyond most employees' ability to self report.

Currently only about 14 percent of large-employer wellness programs include financial incentives for health-outcome measures such as healthy weight, normal cholesterol and normal blood pressure. Companies using financial rewards in this way may seek biometric results, to ensure fairness in the administration of incentive programs.

The cost of a biometric screening varies according to level of service provided by the supplier and the total number of employees to be screened, but is typically $40 to $50 per employee or dependent.

Such a screening can account for 70 percent to 90 percent of the costs of a health assessment, which can be an obstacle for employers, particularly those just starting to offer assessments to employees and dependents.

But what are the alternatives?

It Is Possible to Get Useful Data without a Finger Stick

The cost of biometrics should not deter an employer from offering a health assessment. Some vendors recommend more detailed questions on diet and physical-activity habits for employers not able to go the biometric route, using behavioral risk as a proxy.

Alternatively, employees can be asked to directly input their "numbers" into the questionnaire portion of the assessment, but this can result in inaccurate or omitted information. Some additional creative approaches include:

* Use this as an opportunity to promote annual physicals with a primary-care physician. Tell employees to see their doctor to get this key information (or ask the employee to call the doctor's office to request the most recent data).

* If the employee does not have the information, use it as a teachable moment and communicate that by not knowing their numbers, they put themselves at greater risk of undetected disease.

* Choose to focus on measuring behavior, not biometrics, since this is the key factor to influence (and modify). Changes in health habits may not always equate to hard-outcomes data, but this is a reasonable approach for behavioral interventions.

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* Report numbers to health coaches; if self-reported data is the only option, employees should report to a person, such as a health coach, instead of a data field. The employee may feel more accountable to a person (versus a computer screen).

Employees without a primary-care provider and those who do not routinely obtain physicals will benefit more from a biometric screening than any other group.

Employers in retail, banking and some manufacturing sectors should strongly consider offering biometric screenings with their health assessments. These are valuable not just from the "accurate measuring" standpoint, but as a significant starting point for employees to see meaningful data and begin to improve their health.

In all cases, employers must abide by the rules for confidentiality of personal health information as set out in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

The National Business Group on Health, based in Washington, is a non-profit organization devoted exclusively to representing large employers' perspective on national health-policy issues and providing practical solutions to its members' most important healthcare problems.

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