Patient Engagement

Fitbit subsidy pays off for IU Health employee wellness

Employee wellness programs have a spotty track record, but Indiana University Health is making its effort work.

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Employee wellness programs have a spotty track record.

At MedCity CONVERGE two weeks ago, Nebeyou Abebe, senior director for health and well-being at foodservice and facilities management company Sodexo North America, said that although 84 percent of large employers offer wellness services, only 4-8 percent of employees in such programs are engaged in programs designed to improve their own health. “Most workplace wellness activities today have failed,” he said.

If those numbers are correct, Indiana University Health is in the minority. Between 2010 and 2013, the academic health system formerly known as Clarian Health placed a strategic focus on obesity, tobacco use, diabetes and activity among its workforce. IU Health reported a sharp reduction in claims for obesity diagnosis and treatment, to the point that obesity fell out of the top 10 chronic diseases among employees in 2014.

In the same 2010-13 time frame, employee participation in health screening rose by 61 percent, to include more than a third of the workforce of nearly 29,000, while use of on-site fitness centers jumped by 44 percent. Meanwhile, IU Health documented that 63 percent of employees in a wellness program were moving more, 67 percent better coped with stress, 67 percent were eating better and 68 percent had a greater handle on weight management. Diabetes management and prevention improved as well.

“We are making the healthy choice the easy choice,” Marci Cooper, manager of employee wellness at Indianapolis-based IU Health, said Wednesday at Fitbit Captivate in Chicago. “We make the healthy choice the easy choice by having healthy foods at meetings,” she said, as an example.

The main campus in Indianapolis has mile-long walking maps for workers within and around the buildings. IU Health sponsors employee teams in running and cycling events and supports bike commuters by making bike racks and showers available at many of its 190 locations across Indiana.

And given that this was a Fitbit-sponsored event, there had to be an angle including the wearable activity tracker. Health gains accelerated in the last two years, ever since IU Health ran a Fitbit pilot that Cooper, a registered dietitian with a master’s in public health, called “wildly successful.” In 2014, the health system rolled the program out to the whole organization. “We wanted to do an activity-based challenge,” Cooper told MedCity News.

IU Health subsidized about $25 toward the purchase of a Fitbit tracker, and the 3,000 initially available sold out in three hours, Cooper said. Others were able to buy discounted Fitbits for family and friends to increase the number of participants and challengers.

The 15-person wellness team IU Health developed several Fitbit add-ons, including weekly tips and inspiration, shout-outs for people on the leader board and improved communications. Prizes included a random drawing for a trip to the Caribbean, and incentives included points that could be redeemed for reductions in health insurance premiums, according to Cooper.

IU Health manages employee activity though a custom-branded corporate Fitbit dashboard. Employees must opt in to share limited data sets. The health system augments the Fitbit program with monthly outreach by health coaches and weekly check-ins by nurses trained as disease-specific educators, also on an opt-in basis.

Cooper and her team regularly travel to larger IU Health sites across the Hoosier State to encourage participation and keep participants in the loop about the program. “The communications part has been huge for us,” Cooper said.