Written by: Ibani Kapur
Medically reviewed by: Rob Philibert MD PhD
Employee wellness programming is an older concept that has recently gained more traction and has become an $8 billion industry. According to a report in 2019, 84% of large employers (200 or more workers) offered Employee Wellness programs.
At the theoretical level, wellness programs make sense to employers. Reducing health care costs and increasing productivity are two of the main goals of these programs. Understanding the factors driving costs and affecting worker productivity is critical to their successful implementation. Most notably, the ongoing pandemic has created more awareness surrounding health improvement encouraging infection screening and vaccination. Still, employers need to be cognizant that the traditional risks such as heart disease pose significant challenges to the corporate bottom line.
Finding the right balance in employee wellness programming is important. The term Return on Investment (ROI) is often used to denote investment made by an organization in employee health so that health care costs in the future can be substantially reduced. Certainly, reducing health care costs through employee wellness programs through targeting key cost centers can improve ROI. However, the ROI on employee retention and recruitment may be larger. Prospective hires are increasingly requesting employee wellness programs as part of their compensation package and firms with well-rounded plans being better capable of retaining high-value employees in the current competitive job market. Therefore, understanding what employees desire in employee wellness programs is also critical.
Constructing a comprehensive wellness plan that addresses the employer and employee needs is challenging. In particular, strategies for preventive healthcare need to address both lifestyle and disease management. Disease management solutions embrace more medically oriented measures that prevent those currently with illness from experiencing progression of the illness. Lifestyle management initiatives include diet plans, exercise, weight management strategies for those either at risk or with the current disease. These programs must be cost-effective yet not burdensome enough to dissuade employee engagement.
Cardiovascular disease is one area where both medical and lifestyle interventions can play an important role in wellness programming. Strategies need to be oriented to both identifying those at risk and managing those at risk. Fortunately, the approaches can be synergistic and attract “buy-in” from both the employer and employee.
The key to implementing these strategies is to use effective methods to assess both initial risks and to monitor prevention/treatment in those employees at high risk or having active disease. Currently, employers use a variety of methods including lipid-based risk calculators to estimate initial risk and monitor the illness. Unfortunately, because these lipid-based methods miss the majority of early events and only capture one aspect of the many factors that lead to heart disease, prevention specialists are seeking alternative clinical testing methods.
Epigenetic tests may be an attractive approach for some employers. Epigenetics is the study of potentially modifiable changes, such as methylation, to DNA. Unlike genetic testing which can only predict risk, epigenetic methods can not only establish whether a patient is experiencing illness but can potentially be used to guide treatment. This new technology is revolutionizing the diagnostic testing industry. The global epigenetic diagnostic market size is growing by over 20% per year and is expected to reach $21.7 billion by 2026.
Epigenetic tests can effectively assess risk for Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). CHD is the most common type of CVD and is characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Critically, early risk detection and treatment of CHD can lead to the prevention of costly, potentially fatal heart attacks. The recently introduced Epi+Gen CHD is an example of an epigenetic test that may be very useful in prevention programming for older, high-value employees. Epi+Gen CHD is an artificial intelligence-guided test that uses the results of three DNA methylation and five genetic assays to estimate the risk of CHD. In direct head-to-head testing, this new test markedly outperforms traditional lipid testing and allows clinicians to use the dynamic nature of DNA methylation to assess treatment effectiveness.
Because of the greater sensitivity afforded by the epigenetic method, the use of this NexGen test can actually save employers money even if the initial testing costs may be higher than the traditional lipid-based test. In a recently published study, a medical economist demonstrated that the use of Epi+Gen CHD could not only prevent unnecessary employee deaths but also lead to tens of thousands of dollars in annual savings.
Employees are the most valuable asset for any company. Effective wellness plans can help employers protect both that asset and the company’s bottom line. Recent developments in epigenetics herald a new day for Wellness Programming. Epi+Gen CHD can be an important part of the first step which helps users take control of their health while offering better insight into the next steps of action in their wellness journey.