Employee Weight-Loss Programs Don't Reduce Short-Term Medical Costs
Researchers from the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore, a partnership between the Duke University School of Medicine and the National University of Singapore, evaluated the return on investment of an employee weight-loss program in terms of reduced medical costs. The study found that the program, using a combination of approaches, was highly effective -- 19 percent of overweight or obese employees lost at least 5 percent of body weight. The average weight loss was 19 pounds, or 9.5 percent of body weight.
However, researchers found that the weight loss did not translate into reduced costs. During the program and for two years afterward, employees who lost weight had no significant reduction in medical costs, compared to those who did not lose weight. The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, noted that employees who ended up losing weight already had lower medical costs before starting the program. There was also no difference in work absences for employees who lost weight.
"These results suggest that a quick return on investment from weight loss programs, even effective ones, is unlikely," said Eric Finkelstein, lead author of the study.
Researchers said that the study had a key limitation. For privacy reasons, the analysis excluded data on costs related to mental health problems. Because obesity and overweight are commonly associated with mental health disorders, Finkelstein said this could lead the study to underestimate the financial impact of weight loss.
Despite the lack of a quick return on investment, researchers emphasized that there are still good reasons for employers to consider workplace weight-loss programs. According to the study, there may be other benefits of improving the health of the workforce, and cost reductions still possible in the long term. Meanwhile, the researchers urged further studies, including more data on health and economic benefits and longer follow-up, to "inform the next generation of employer-sponsored programs that address the serious public health threat of obesity."
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February 1, 2010
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