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How to encourage employee health

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Companies are trying to lower insurance costs while raising productivity

by Ruth Scott

SBJ Contributing Writer

Seeking to lower health insurance costs while improving employee satisfaction and productivity, companies are using a number of strategies to encourage employee health and wellness.

Miriam Clark is the director of HealthSense corporate wellness services at Cox Health Systems. HealthSense, a preventive health and wellness program, was first implemented for Cox employees, she said, but the program's resources are now offered to other companies in the area as well.

"It's still relatively new, but a lot of companies are accessing our services, and we're getting a lot of positive response from employees," said Clark.

The initial step toward improving employee wellness involves identifying the needs of the particular population. According to Clark, HealthSense offers various screenings including those for blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat and glucose, as well as cardiac and lifestyle screenings. "The screenings are pretty specific in determining an individual's health risk," she said.

St. John's Health System offers HealthWorks, a similar program. "We're usually a first step for a lot of the companies we work for," said Jeff Rogers, supervisor of client/provider relations. HealthWorks begins by offering many screenings, including a coronary risk profile.

"After gathering the information, we then offer educational programs," he said. Literature is provided or

suggestions made, based on the results of the screenings. "If high cholesterol is a big problem with one company, we will offer some educational programs to help lower cholesterol, or make simple suggestions such as low-cholesterol foods in their cafeteria or break room," Rogers said.

The important issue, according to Clark, is, "what are we going to do with the data we have gathered?" The HealthSense program offers prevention assessments, tailored to the demographics of the population.

"We're selling the concept of health and wellness, focusing on prevention," she said. "We want to shift people's thinking to seeing a physician before they get sick, to identify risk factors."

Clark said that since heart disease is the leading cause of death, employers are realizing the importance of screening for risk factors and taking preventive measures.

"With managed care so active in our area," Rogers said, "companies are beginning to say, 'Let's start looking at the prevention side of health.' Prevention is beneficial to the individual as well as to the company."

Sally Brackett, RN, with St. John's HealthWorks, is one of the administrators of City Utilities' Fit For Life incentive program. In the past, the company utilized an exercise program, but two years ago, it was expanded into a health and fitness program. "We decided there was more to being healthy than just exercise," Brackett said. Kevin Dody, safety and occupational health director at City Utilities, said, "We felt like nutrition had become a big issue and we were leaving that part out."

The current program combines healthy habits and nutrition with exercise. "This way we are able to get more people involved," Dody said. Presently, about one-third of City Utilities employees are participating in the Fit For Life program, which operates on an honor system.

Employees receive points for healthy habits such as keeping their fat intake under 30 percent, wearing their seat belts, reading health-related articles, and taking preventive measures like annual physicals and periodic check-ups, Brackett said. Participants turn in forms recording their points, and prizes are given.

Associated Electric Cooperative is one company that utilizes Cox Health Systems' wellness screening each year, said Angie Vire, staff assistant in human resources. "In conjunction with that, we have various health-related businesses come and set up booths. Then we have a speaker and an activity in the afternoon," she said.

A fitness room and a walking track are available to employees and their families. In addition, employees who attend a required number of sessions at area fitness centers are reimbursed by the company, she said. "It's a good opportunity for the employees to be healthier, which keeps them happy and coming to work, as well as increasing their productivity," she said.

According to Vire, Associated Electric has also implemented a flexible work schedule, which helps with arranging doctor and dental appointments. "I feel like our attendance has been better since we have been giving employees these opportunities," she said.

Many companies are attempting to heighten awareness of health-related issues by bringing in speakers. "We have some type of wellness speaker come each month, and we provide lunch for the employees as an added incentive," Vire said. Similarly, City Utilities holds "brown bag luncheons" where speakers discuss wellness topics.

These kinds of programs are "not designed to take the place of a physician visit," Clark said. HealthSense offers physician referral when needed. "Most people don't see a doctor regularly," she added. "We're seeing a very positive response from employees who don't have to visit a doctor to benefit from preventive screening."

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