Keeping workers healthy doesn't have to cost a fortune

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By Victoria Stagg Elliottis a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009. Posted April 18, 2011.

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When Rochelle Cordero, a staffer at a ophthalmology practice in Jacksonville, Fla., was asked to run the new workplace wellness program, she jumped at the chance.

"I personally wanted to be involved, whether I was in charge or not," Cordero said at the Jacksonville office of the Atlantic Eye Institute, where she is a Lasik coordinator and a skin-care consultant.

The practice, which has more than 30 employees, also has an office in Jacksonville Beach.

The doctors couldn't afford a consultant to set up a wellness program, nor did they have the time to do it themselves. But they knew it was important to help employees lose weight, quit smoking and manage stress so they drafted Cordero to set up a program. "I was an economical choice," Cordero said.

Atlantic Eye Institute is an example of how an effective wellness program can be managed by an employee who also has regular job duties, while taking advantage of free or low-cost resources available online and in the community. A paper in the December 2010 Harvard Business Review found that the return on each dollar a large company invests in an employee wellness program can be as high as $6.

It can be daunting for smaller practices to set up such programs, but Atlantic Eye Institute has shown it is possible to use the energy and input of employees.

A return on the investment may be hard to quantify, but employers will notice a boost in their work force's energy and morale.

"Any small company can do wellness for a low cost," said Fiona Gathright, president of Wellness Corporate Solutions in Bethesda, Md. "This is not something that has to cost a lot of money."

Under Cordero's leadership, Atlantic Eye Institute's wellness program focused on increased physical activity to help employees fight hypertension and high cholesterol. Cordero signed up the practice for The President's Challenge, which strives to improve daily physical activity. The President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition provides free online tools for tracking individual efforts and results.

The Atlantic Eye Institute hosts lunchtime walks and provides jump ropes and hand weights for staffers to use during breaks.

The program stresses healthy eating and smoking cessation. Every Thursday, a staffer voluntarily brings in a healthy snack. Smokers earn daily points for trying to quit, or for cutting back.

Most employees are motivated by the desire to be healthy. Other incentives include the chance to win a one-month gym membership or a gift card. Employees who walk the most steps and achieve other goals have their names printed on a white board in the staff lounge and are recognized at quarterly practice meetings.

Cordero, who spends a couple hours a week on the program in addition to her other duties, is proof that a medical practice -- no matter how small -- can have a positive impact on the health of its employees as well as patients.

"Just go ahead and do it," she said. "Think big. [Better health] is the ultimate prize and for the owners of these [practices], it's going to benefit them. I don't think you could ever lose in trying."

With about 70% of employees signed up, Cordero says the program is a success because it did not come from the top or from the outside.

"People are losing weight and losing inches and have more energy. We do our best to encourage each other, and it's very accessible. It doesn't matter how small the practice is. You just have to take the initiative," she said.

The Atlantic Eye Institute doesn't have objective data on the results. Workplace wellness experts say savings on insurance premiums are unlikely, although there can be other benefits.

Cordero, for example, says she lost 25 pounds. She also believes the program has improved morale and camaraderie by getting workers to interact. "It just makes a world of difference," she said.

Laws governing employee-wellness programs vary by state. Experts say it is important they be voluntary, and that data gathered during health-risk assessments be private. A program should offer options according to abilities and disabilities.

The programs may help some practices qualify for tax incentives. Florida does not have tax incentives for workplace wellness programs at small businesses, but other states do.

Tax incentives "are not huge, but they are worthwhile," said Lee Dukes, president of Principal Wellness Co., a subsidiary of Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa.

In addition, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated grants for small businesses to provide comprehensive workplace wellness programs. The grant application process is not yet open, but $200 million will be allocated from 2011 to 2015 for businesses of 100 employees or fewer. Eligible workplace wellness initiatives must have been launched after March 23, 2010, when the act was signed.

Victoria Stagg Elliott is a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009.

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