Study: Wellness Incentives Can Contribute to Reduced Health Care Costs

According to a new study, offering employees incentives as part of wellness programs can spell better health and reduced corporate health care costs.

“This research provides compelling evidence that effectively designed incentive programs can motivate people to change their behaviors, leading to better health outcomes and lower health care costs over the long term,” said Arthur C. Carlos, CEO of The Vitality Group, a subsidiary of Discovery Holdings Limited. “This increase in activity is particularly exciting as we know from secondary research that physical activity typically decreases with age.”

The retrospective study was conducted over a 5-year period among 300,000 members in Discovery Holding’s health plan. A total of 192,467 of these participants were registered with Vitality, Discovery’s incentives-based wellness program.

The study examined changes in participation in verified fitness activities and the impact on hospital claims among members. Vitality members were incentivized to participate in fitness activities, which were measured based on the frequency of electronically documented gym visits and other verified activities.

Study highlights include:

  • The percentage of participants who used the gym at least once a week increased by almost 23 percent.
  • Over time, the percentage of members who joined the gym but were “inactive” decreased by 8 percent.
  • Hospital costs were 6 percent lower in those members who were inactive and became active and 16 percent lower in those members who were active throughout the study compared to those members who remained inactive.
  • The increased frequency of gym visits was associated with a lower probability of hospital admissions; two additional gym visits per week reduced the probability of hospital admission by 13 percent.

“While there is considerable evidence that incentive programs are effective in getting people to address simple health behaviors such as vaccinations and screening tests, there is less available research for the effectiveness of these programs to address more complex behaviors such as unhealthy eating and physical inactivity,” said lead researcher Deepak N. Patel, M.D., Mmed, University of Cape Town and senior clinical specialist, Discovery Health. “This study provides evidence that well-structured incentive and reward programs may also be effective in addressing these entrenched complex behaviors.”

The study was published in the May/June issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Health Promotion.

In the April 2011 feature article, “Workplace Workouts: Combating Employee Obesity,” David Brock, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology, told EHS Today that incentives can be a successful strategy in encouraging employees to increase their physical activity levels.

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