Jonathan P. Dugas, PhD, and colleagues of The Vitality Group, Chicago, combined data from two major studies to estimate the possible savings in medical costs from reductions in key health risk factors. The study focused on seven risk factors or medical conditions typically addressed by workplace wellness programs: physical inactivity, low fruit and vegetable intake, smoking, overweight/obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and alcohol abuse.
The results suggested that — if all heightened risk factors could be reduced to their "theoretical minimums" — total medical care expenses per person for all working age adults would be reduced by about $650, or approximately 18 percent. The possible savings increased with age: up to 28 percent for older working adults and retirees.
Employers are very interested in workplace wellness programs to improve the health and well-being of the workforce — with resulting savings in medical costs, among other benefits. But there are conflicting reports on the potential for long-term savings.
One widely repeated figure, attributed to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, is that preventable illness makes up about 70 percent of the burden and costs of illness. While the cost reductions estimated in the new study are more modest, Dr. Dugas and coauthors write, "The potential savings from workplace wellness programs are still quite large and supportive of widespread interest by employers."
While the maximum savings estimated are unlikely to be achieved immediately, Dr. Dugas and colleagues add, "Medical care savings from workplace wellness programs will increase with time given that more eligible wellness program members participate, effective control of heightened risk factors improves, and greater risk reversal can be achieved."