The healthiest employees of Baptist Health South Florida incurred thousands of dollars less in healthcare costs and were less likely to be hospitalized or visit an emergency department than employees with moderate or poor health, according to a recent study.

The study offers a compelling business case for employers who offer health insurance to invest in comprehensive workplace health and well-being programs and policies, said Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer for prevention and a study co-author.

Healthcare costs for the healthiest employees of nonprofit Baptist Health South Florida averaged $4,300, less than half of the $10,000 incurred by those in poor health. Moderately healthy employees averaged $5,800.

A significant portion of these healthcare costs were from conditions that could be prevented by better lifestyle choices, said Khurram Nasir, M.D., a cardiologist and study senior author.

Optimizing the cardiovascular health of employees may translate into millions of dollars in healthcare savings for employers, said Nasir, also research director for the center for prevention and wellness at Baptist Health South Florida, based in Miami.

For the study, researchers collected information in 2014 on diet, height and weight, physical activity, blood pressure, blood glucose, total cholesterol and smoking from more than 9,000 employees. These health factors are defined by the AHA as Life’s Simple 7, used to define optimal, moderate or low cardiovascular health.

“These findings demonstrate that the Life’s Simple 7 framework is effective for employers to evaluate the cardiovascular health of their workforce and to engage employees to reach their optimal health,” said Chris Calitz, director of the AHA’s Center for Workplace Health Research and Evaluation and a study co-author.

Seventy-six percent of the employees surveyed had moderate cardiovascular health; 12 percent had low cardiovascular health; and just under 12 percent had optimal health. All participants had health insurance provided by their employer.

Achieving optimal health under the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 goals is associated with a lower risk of dying prematurely, having a heart attack or stroke or even having other chronic diseases like diabetes or cancer, Nasir said.

“In spite of this, we have seen limited investments by payers and employers in programs that can promote and maintain these healthy habits,” he said.

The average age of study employees was 43, although the benefit of optimal health was also seen in employees under 30, Nasir said.

With nearly 59 percent of the U.S. population in the workforce, employers bear an estimated $578 billion per year in healthcare expenditures for people not covered by Medicare, according to a 2014 American Health Policy Institute report.

The study results could help clear uncertainty among employers that an investment in workplace wellness would translate into healthcare savings, even in younger employees, Nasir said. Only 13 percent of employers have invested in comprehensive workplace wellness programs, according to a 2014 RAND corporation report.

Baptist Health South Florida offers a wellness program to employees contributing to a health insurance plan. It includes online health assessment, a health fair and $50 reimbursement for meeting minimum requirements for not smoking, Body Mass Index, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose.

Rising healthcare costs are consuming a large fraction of profits, so upstream investment to ensure a healthy workforce may be one of the soundest investments employers can make, even in the short term, Nasir said.

“The take home message is crystal clear: wellness and prevention make economic sense,” Nasir said.

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