A personalized approach aids employee weight loss, says new report

From serving healthier cafeteria fare to building up an arsenal of digital tools, hospitals and other large employers are trying a wide range of approaches to get employees to lose weight.

Now, a new report from the Northeast Business Group on Health, an employer-led coalition that examines health costs and delivery, concludes that employers are most successful in addressing employee weight issues with a customized approach that takes body mass index and personal needs into account.

Obesity costs U.S. employers about $73 billion per year, according to a widely cited Duke University study, and health care is among the industries where it is most prevalent, according to a separate study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

As benefits managers shop for solutions to help their employees, they should look at programs that offer personalization, whether it’s provided onsite, near-site or online, said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, medical director at the business group and a co-author of the report released Wednesday.
“Personalization is fundamental but it can be delivered in lots of ways,” Nobel said. “It means really understanding the challenges in weight management a person has.”

Personalization starts with segmenting employees into groups by body mass index, including those under 30 BMI, and reaching out to them with the appropriate behavioral or medical resources, the report says. Once a person reaches a certain BMI, it’s harder to lose weight and easier to gain, Dr. Louis Aronne, director of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Comprehensive Weight Control Program, notes in the report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers someone with a BMI of 25 to 30 to be overweight and someone whose BMI exceeds 30 to be obese.

But offering custom interventions may be easier said than done. At Montefiore Health System, it’s difficult to truly personalize employee weight loss plans by pairing workers with individual health coaches, said Nicole Hollingsworth, assistant vice president of community and population health at Montefiore. A case study on Montefiore in the report adds, “With more than 28,000 employees, multiple locations and communication guidelines that limit outreach and promotion, continual awareness and high-touch engagement are challenges.”

In order to accommodate employees’ diverse needs, Montefiore aims to offer a wide range of options for weight loss and incorporate those approaches into a broader wellness program, said Hollingsworth.

More than 800 employees have seen a registered dietitian since the launch of the health system’s Associate Wellness program in 2012, according to the report, and participants in a recent six-week weight-loss program at the health system lost an average of 2.6 pounds. These targeted weight-loss initiatives complement public health approaches, such as keeping sugary drinks out of the cafeteria and adding new onsite exercise facilities, said Hollingsworth.

In addition, Montefiore offers employees access to digital nutrition and wellness tools provided through the Cerner Corporation.

“What’s emerging from our findings is that the convergence of all these things might lead to higher effectiveness and more sustained benefits,” said Nobel. —C.L.