Encourage Employees to Approach Health Care Choices as Consumers for Better Results

A new study suggests that encouraging employees to approach their health care choices as consumers, when combined with traditional wellness initiatives, can bolster their diet, exercise and other wellness habits.

The study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, indicates that the wellness programs that set out to teach employees how to be more discerning health care consumers often are effective at doing so.

During the study, 631 employees of two large, Midwestern companies randomly were assigned to two programs and a control group. A traditional health education intervention program promoted better nutrition, physical activity, injury prevention, smoking cessation and stress management, while an “activated consumer” program taught participants to evaluate sources of health information, choose a health benefits plan, use preventive services and take medications properly. The control group received no health education interventions.

High-risk employees in both intervention programs, which included those at risk for cardiovascular disease or premature death, were offered individualized coaching. Coaching for the “activated consumer” participants, however, was less intensive than the traditional model. This coaching contained roughly half as many sessions and was designed to focus on building skills with using health care resources.

Supplementing the Traditional Approach

Two years later, after a follow-up and screening period, both intervention groups saw improved self-reported health risk behaviors such as reducing dietary fat and increasing exercise. The overall effect, however, “favored the traditional approach,” said Paul Terry, Ph.D., first author of the paper, who was with the Park Nicollet Institute in Minneapolis at the time of the study and currently is CEO of StayWell Health Management.

While improvement in reducing risk-behaviors might have been expected in the traditional health education group, similar improvements within the group receiving consumer education suggest that “consumerism skills generalize into self-health management skills,” the study authors noted.

Although all three groups of participants registered improvements in measures of health consumer activation, such as the ability to recognize reliable health Web sites, only those in the activated consumer program did significantly better than control. Clinical health outcomes and productivity were not affected in the 2-year period following the survey.

“I think because activation results were positive, favorable and involved a lower overall investment, the lesson learned is not to give up on traditional approaches to health education but to layer in an emphasis on consumer skills, especially for clients who lack them and want to take advantage of new resources,” said Terry.

Health Behavior News Service is part of the Center for Advancing Health.

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