Adding biometric health screenings to your company’s wellness program can yield a bumper crop of benefits. This may explain why these screenings are rapidly gaining popularity. But beware: These screenings aren’t a low-maintenance HR initiative.
Here are some of the benefits you might expect to see by adding well-managed biometric screenings to your wellness program:
- Discovery of health risks both at the individual level and within a particular employee demographic,
- Insights that can be applied to the design of your health benefit plan,
- A baseline you can use to measure your progress in elevating employees’ health indicators,
- Development of health indicator improvement incentives within the wellness program,
- A way to alert employees with acute needs to seek medical attention, and
- Opportunities to motivate employees with troublesome (but not acute) health indicators to modify their lifestyles and, where applicable, maintain a prescribed medication regimen.
Areas for Special Attention
Drug compliance. While wellness programs in general have brought many good results, one exception might be in the area of prescription drugs. A study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) shows that, for most of the medical conditions examined, many wellness programs haven’t been highly successful in motivating participants to comply with their prescription drug regimens. Using biometric screenings may offer some hope to improve that compliance rate.
According to the EBRI study, the “longer-term medical cost offsets and productivity enhancements may be possible through improved medication adherence made possible via information captured through biometric screenings.”
Scope. Carefully consider the breadth of the medical conditions for which your wellness program will screen. For example, a blood sample that’s tested for cholesterol and blood sugar can be subjected to all kinds of other tests, including thyroid disorders. Yet if the scope is too wide, you could be asking for trouble.
The problems occur when biometric screening vendors want to create a one-stop shopping environment, adding extra tests that aren’t necessarily conducted according to proper medical protocols. For instance, a younger employee might be given results of a test appropriate only for an older person. Then, based on the findings of the test, he or she may jump to the wrong conclusion.
Even with an appropriate test, employees can still misunderstand the findings if the results are given in a vacuum without a medical professional to explain the meaning.
False alarms. False positives are another area of possible concern when test results aren’t reviewed by a physician. One rule of thumb is that biometric screening tests should be limited to those that are straightforward and employees can address through lifestyle changes. If your biometric screening vendor proposes incorporating a broad set of tests, be sure you’re satisfied with the rationale for doing so, and that the tests will be administered under proper clinical guidelines.
Four Program Recommendations
Consider the following four recommendations from a “joint consensus statement” of the Health Enhancement Research Organization, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the Care Continuum Alliance:
1. Encourage fasting. It’s generally necessary for blood samples to be taken several hours after an employee has eaten. Therefore, “fasting screenings are limited to a 4-hour window to limit the time employees need to fast.” It’s also a good idea to provide refreshments (juice and light snacks) to employees after a fasting screening event.
2. Preserve privacy. Be sure to provide adequate privacy for screenings, including when the employee is receiving the results of tests given. “Screening personnel should refrain from verbalizing results and instead point to results once recorded,” the statement recommends.
3. Choose a valid processing format. Some screening vendors use stations for each test component, moving employees along in assembly line fashion. Others prefer for all components of the screening to be done in one setting with one health care professional. When stations are used, generally one or two screeners will complete the biometric measurements, and another screener will complete the blood draw. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach; you can determine which is best for you by discussing the alternatives with different screening vendors.
4. Report results properly. There are typically three or four data recipients: The employee, the employer, a health management company (for example, an employee population health analyst, health plan administrator or insurance carrier), and the employee’s primary medical care provider. As noted, data given to employees should be provided with proper context to allow them to make the most sense of it. HIPAA requires that you, as the employer, receive data only in aggregated form to protect employee privacy rights. Making arrangements for a health management company and the employees’ physicians to receive the data is essential to maximize the chances that the data will be put to good use.
A Comprehensive Approach
Employee biometric screenings, and even the broader wellness programs they fall within, are certainly not a silver bullet for improving employee health and helping you to manage the cost of your health benefits. The “joint consensus statement” above emphasizes that point in the conclusion of its report. Your objectives for biometric health screenings “can only be met when screenings are part of a comprehensive health management program, prioritizing the health and well-being of employees, specifically designed with targeted goals, and evaluated for effectiveness and engagement.”
If you need more information about the benefits and the pitfalls of biometric screening, visit ebri.org and type “biometric screening” into the search window. You should also discuss any prospective screening program with your benefits adviser.