Editor's Notebook: Coaching a Healthier Work Force

An innovative wellness program aims to prove that a healthy work force saves companies money.

Many companies use health risk assessments in their health promotion programs and then report that information to employees, but Prairie States Enterprises has taken the process a step further with the introduction of one-on-one coaching for employees.

Under the program called Optimal Health, administered by Prairie States (http://www.prairieontheweb.com), a third-party administrator based in Chicago and Sheboygan, Wis., participants fill out a health risk assessment, undergo blood pressure and cholesterol screening and later receive a personalized health report. They review that report with a Prairie States personal health coach, a registered nurse, and then work with the coach to establish their health goals.

Sargento Foods, a manufacturer of cheeses and other foods, enlisted in the program and avoided more than $573,200 in health claims costs in 2004, according to an actuarial analysis. Of the firm's 1,100 employees, 780 are enrolled with Prairie States and 376 participated in the program last year. Health care costs for program participants dropped 10.3 percent in 2002 through 2004, while those of non-participants rose 20.7 percent. The program provided a handsome 13-to-1 return on investment.

Dawn Kind, director of Optimal Health at Prairie States, said participants "often expect us to tell them what to do, but we want to know what they are thinking as a result of the health report and what they want to do." She added, "We help them set goals but the goals they set are their own."

Coaches usually contact participants once a month but may be in more frequent contact when, for example, an employee is trying to quit smoking. An array of health materials are made available to employees through seminars, printed materials and the Prairie States Web site.

Prairie States CEO Felicia Wilhelm said participants at Sargento ranged from the very healthy to those with serious medical concerns. Over the last 3 years, she noted, there has been a "continuous decrease in the risk profiles" of employees in the program. Data from the program is now being analyzed to determine the relationship between a risk profile reduction and a reduction in lifestyle-related health claims costs.

Wilhelm says that while the one-on-one coaching might seem like a high-cost approach, "we believe it is the only way to go." She said she and her staff knew going in that the "human touch succeeds where medicine and regimens alone often fail."

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