Working together against fatigueWorkplace health promotion programs have the potential to reduce average worker health costs by 18 percent — and even more for older workers, reports a study in the January Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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.

Conflicting reports on the potential for long-term savings have complicated the the adoption of workplace wellness programs by many companies.

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 than that, Dr. Dugas and coauthors write, "The potential savings from workplace wellness programs are still quite large and supportive of widespread interest by employers."

Dugas cautioned that the maximum savings estimated will be achieved over time, if participation increases, and effective control of heightened risk factors improves.

Citation — Bolnick H, Millard F, Dugas JP. Medical care savings from workplace wellness programs: what is a realistic savings potential? J Occup Environ Med. 2013;55(1):4-9.