Health Risk Assessments: The Baby and the Bath Water

July 11, 2012 in Uncategorized, Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs


There may be some employees whose health has benefited based on some feedback they got on an HRA, but not enough to warrant the investment you are making in the HRA (that investment includes your organization’s money; your time; and, perhaps most importantly, your participants’ time, energy, and goodwill). But don’t listen to me. Your employees will also tell you that your HRA doesn’t make much difference to their health. That’s why some employers pay employees up to $500 just to complete an HRA.You wouldn’t have to pay employees to complete a simple form if they actually saw any value in it to begin with.

A series of blog posts about HRAs  has deconstructed HRAs with an eye toward better understanding their value or lack of value. Here are the cliff notes:

  • The conventional framework of employee wellness programs is predicated on the principle that improvements in the health risk profile of a population can lead to reductions in healthcare costs and improved employee productivity.
  • HRAs are techniques or processes of gathering information to develop health profiles, using the profiles to estimate future risks of adverse health outcomes.
  • HRAs are dependent on self-reported data, which is valid for effective use in population health management intervention, although its value at the individual level is questionable.
  • Importing clinical screening values — such as blood pressure and cholesterol — to an HRA does not add much validity to the HRA on an individual basis, but, like the self-reported data, should be sufficient to measure the health risk of a population.
  • HRAs may help steer individuals towards more intensive programs based on the position of the individual in the strata of the population’s health risk and predicted health care costs.

These findings point to the same thing: Health risk assessment is a population health tool. HRAs’ primary utility is in helping employers identify the health risks that deserve the most attention in order to achieve positive health and financial outcomes. The same tool can then be used to measure a program’s success in shifting the health risk of the population.

Unfortunately, employers have been using HRAs, a population health measurement instrument, as a behavioral intervention. No wonder you are disappointed. Be honest with yourself and with your employees: The HRA is for you — a potentially useful tool in the administration of your program. It’s not an employee benefit, and your employees know it.

Part of the reason employers have mistaken HRAs with a full-fledged health intervention is that vendors have marketed them as such. As a measurement tool, you should reassess whether your HRA is worth what you are paying.

But don’t rush to throw the baby out with the bath water. If you decide that your HRA’s capacity to measure risk in your employee population justifies its use, your next step is to reconsider whether you truly need to have all your program participants complete an HRA every year. Your vendor doesn’t want to hear it, but you may be able to realize the measurement potential of your HRA more cost effectively by having a sample of your employee population complete it every two or three years.

I’m not making a case for or against health risk assessments, just encouraging you to make a well informed and critical decision. What do you want your HRA to do? What does your HRA do? Is your organization getting its money’s worth?

[This article was originally posted on the InTEWN blog July 11, 2012].

Are Health Risk Assessments Effective?

July 6, 2012 in Uncategorized, Employee Wellness Programs

Are health risk assessments effective? Three systematic reviews have sought to answer this question.

One of the most rigorous and most recent analyses, Health Risk Assessment: Technology Report, conducted by McMaster University Evidence-based Practice Center for Agency for the Healthcare Research and Quality, examined 118 studies of health outcomes associated with HRAs. The report concluded:

Many HRA programs demonstrated improvements on intermediate health outcomes such as blood pressure, cholesterol, physical activity, or fat intake. However, only one article considered hard health outcomes (i.e., freedom from any of the following after 24-month followup: death, myocardial infarction, stroke, Class II-IV angina, or severe asymptomatic ischemia ). Also, followup periods were often shorter than 24 months. Therefore, we were unable to assess whether HRA programs produced health benefits over the medium to long term.

A previous, similarly comprehensive, review was conducted by RAND Corporation. RAND’s study endeavored to evaluate the effectiveness of HRAs for Medicare populations, but in order to do that their study focused on the evidence of HRAs’ effectiveness in any setting, especially worksites. Rand’s conclusions foreshadowed the AHRQ study, stating, “Interventions that combine HRA feedback with health promotion programs are most likely to show beneficial effects… It is not known if these effects persist over the long term.” But Rand also examined cost-effectiveness — importantly for corporate wellness programs — and added:

Current literature is insufficient to accurately estimate the cost effectiveness of programs using HRA. Limited evidence suggests that a carefully designed program that uses a systematic approach to implement HRA and subsequent disease prevention/health promotion interventions has the potential to be cost-beneficial. Considerable effort is needed to optimize program design, implementation, and evaluation.

Yet another study, conducted by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2010, suggested more positive outcomes for HRAs, but still with qualifications. The study concluded that HRAs with feedback “has utility as a gateway intervention to a broader worksite health promotion program that includes health education lasting at least one hour or being repeated multiple times during one year….Results of this review suggest that this intervention may be more effective for some outcomes (e.g., smoking behavior or cholesterol) than for others (e.g., change in body composition).”

(These three reviews, in addition to trying to measure the value of HRAs, also provide comprehensive background information about HRAs — their history, their intended purpose, their modes of delivery, their strengths and weaknesses. If you haven’t studied HRA methodology, I strongly recommend that you read at least one of these reviews.  Any of these three reviews will provide much-needed context. The AHQR review is the best place to start.)

Each of these reviews suggests that there is or may be some potential for HRAs in evoking positive health outcomes for individuals, but none of them are a ringing endorsement. In an upcoming post, I’ll offer my own opinion on why employers may want to hang in there with their HRAs.

[This post was originally published on the InTEWN blog on July 6, 2012]