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New Trend or Passing Fad?
Smoking Rates will Drop with COVID Pandemic

This blog is the FOURTH in a series regarding the ‘unintentional consequences’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our lives have been abruptly altered due to social distancing requirements – both at home and in the workplace – unplanned ‘disruption’ of previous normal activities could permanently replace sacred elements once believed to be unyielding to any change. But COVID-19 just may have dictated new approaches to how we live and work.

In late April, over one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, a piece from Kaiser Health News (KHN) was published discussing how the virus may prompt some smokers to quit their habit, primarily to avoid respiratory risks. Past research has shown that smoking makes it more difficult to fight off respiratory infections. Because of this, one can reasonably assume that smoking will increase health complications, if infected by the virus. It was, therefore, a natural topic to cover how the pandemic may favorably shape smoking habits in the U.S.

Since publication of the KHN article, however, the science between smoking and COVID-19 is not as clear as one might think. Please read on…

Smoking and COVID-19

One early study about COVID-19 health factors suggests that smokers are 14 times more likely to need intensive treatment compared with nonsmokers. Such findings push doctors to use this connection between COVID and smoking, as yet another reason for people to quit this habit.

Yet, using the coronavirus as a valid reason to quit smoking, could possibly backfire. New research from UCLA’s psychology department shows that stigmatizing smokers may actually INCREASE their urge to smoke. Known as a ‘stereotype threat,’ people become anxious about being identified in a negative way and, consequently, end up confirming the behaviors they are trying so hard to disprove.

As we learn more about the impact of this virus on humans, more studies will likely ensue on how smokers are impacted by newly-evolved viruses. Perhaps the development of a reliable and widely-available antibody test could reveal connections between smoking and the coronavirus.

Countervailing Study – Smokers are LESS likely to contract COVID-19

There is contradictory evidence that smoking may actually keep smokers from contracting COVID. French researchers believe that nicotine protects cells from coronavirus attacks. In fact, the Pasteur Institute found that four times fewer smokers contracted COVID than non-smokers.

In lieu of this finding, the French government banned online sales of nicotine replacements – nicotine gum and patches – and warned that pharmacies that dispense treatment for tobacco addiction must limit the amount issued per person. The concern is that “excessive consumption or misuse in the wake of media coverage” may push people to inappropriately consume nicotine replacements to combat COVID.

How true is the French finding? There is much skepticism. More information is needed to learn the truth about nicotine and COVID. For now, a helpful piece can be found in USA TODAY regarding the facts associated with nicotine and COVID.

Conclusion

Given the varied lifestyle behaviors of individuals, some smokers may decide to curtail the habit, while others will maintain the status-quo regardless of having conclusive evidence that their health is at greater risk by holding on to this habit.

As we have found in the past few months in our country, science can play an important role for those who embrace well-documented research, but it can also be discarded by others. In 2017, smoking rates in Iowa mimicked national rates – 17.1 percent of adults smoked. Smoking rates have decreased over the years, and whether the pandemic will accentuate this trend in the future is, at best, uncertain.

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Wellness Programs – New Study Confirms Cautioned Approach

During the past seven years, I have written a fair number of posts regarding wellness programs offered by employers. The core message of all blogs suggests that employers must have realistic expectations about what wellness initiatives will or will not do within the workplace.

A recent randomized clinical study published in JAMA is yet another reminder for employers to have tepid expectations when trying to keep their employees happy, healthy and less likely to incur more health costs. The study found that workplace wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve the health of employees.

From the University of Chicago and Harvard, researchers used a large-scale approach that was peer-reviewed and included a more sophisticated design when analyzing BJ’s Wholesale Clubs. BJ’s has about 33,000 employees across 160 clubs. This analysis compared 20 randomly-assigned clubs that offered wellness programs with 140 BJ’s clubs that did not.

After 18 months of timeline analysis, this study revealed that wellness programs did not result in health measure differences, such as: improved blood sugar or glucose levels, reduced healthcare costs or absenteeism, or impacted job performance in a positive manner. In other words, employees with a wellness program did not experience reduced healthcare costs and other desired affects. I suppose one could argue that a year and one half was not enough comparison time to develop these conclusions.

One of the authors of this study, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it quite succinctly in a Kaiser Health News article: “[But] if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause.”

What are your expectations about workplace wellness? Do you believe such programs, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented, will greatly mitigate your healthcare costs, improve workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism? Maybe you feel these programs are a waste. From our 2012 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, employers shared their perceived ‘return on investment’ on the programs they currently had in place.

According to a 2013 “Workplace Wellness Programs Study” by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these programs only have a modest effect. This runs contrary to claims made by wellness firms that sell workplace wellness programs to employers. The report found that people who participate in wellness initiatives lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Another finding is that employee participation in such plans “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level.” Smoking-cessation programs show some potential, but only “in the short term.”

Most likely, both skeptics and supporters of wellness initiatives will find ammunition to support their cause. Workplace wellness programs have grown to an $8 billion industry in the U.S., primarily as a direct result of rising employer health insurance costs.

This latest report may help stabilize any pre-conceived lofty expectations each of us may have about the benefits of workplace wellness programs. However, it must be noted that some employers have found value in these programs.

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Optical Illusions of Healthcare ‘Reality’

I spend a great deal of time studying healthcare issues, giving balanced attention to both the ‘delivery’ and ‘payment’ of medical care. Admittedly, I have my own biases. How healthcare is delivered in our country is largely dependent on the incentives and disincentives that come from the payment side of our healthcare infrastructure. As a result, the fallout from the misalignment of these incentives cause a great deal of unintentional consequences.

It is true there are positive stories about exceptional doctors and medical staff who shine brightly when caring for patients. In fact, their work can be awe-inspiring, as most people performing this work are honorable and want to do the right thing for patients. However, these well-intentioned professionals are relegated to work in systems ill-equipped for them to consistently succeed. This too-often causes morale problems that can eventually lead to job burnout for medical professionals – which adversely impacts all of us.

For me, cynicism about our healthcare ‘system’ has become a way of life. Key healthcare players are legally allowed to operate within their own myopic sphere to justify their ‘value’ within increasingly complex – yet profitable – inter-related sectors that suck oxygen from our economy. What escalating costs are doing to our families and to our economy, to put it mildly, remains deeply disturbing. Healthcare’s inability to control costs continues to shortchange other sectors of our economy. Opaqueness and creating illusions are important tools to ensuring the status quo will not go away soon.

Within the span of two hours one recent morning, I perused the following topics that fed my skepticism about the true intent of the healthcare sector:

Axios – Executive Pay Packages

This article analyzed the pay of CEOs from 70 of the largest U.S. healthcare companies, who have, on a cumulative basis, earned $9.8 BILLION during the seven years following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Why does this matter? Because the pay packages rarely, if ever, incentivize CEOs to control healthcare spending, eliminate unnecessary procedures, tests or devices and coordinate care. Instead, CEOs are motivated to sell more prescription drugs, perform more tests and procedures, purchase another practice/competitor and create new medical therapies that may not add value to one’s life. In short, CEOs are paid to “do anything to create higher earnings per share” for their shareholders.

My Takeaway: Developing an organizational infrastructure to ensure “value-based healthcare” is evidently dependent on someone else’s pay-scale.

Modern Healthcare – Other Revenue Streams are the Priority

Ninety percent of surveyed hospital and health-system executives have an “urgent priority” to find new revenue streams in the next three years due to downward revenue pressure causing massive financial headwinds to their profitability goals. In healthcare, it is all about revenue growth.

My Takeaway: Too bad the revenue streams derived from patient-centric and safety programs are paltry when compared to other appealing opportunities being pursued by these executives.

A transcript of the most recent ‘Fixing Healthcare’ podcast – Perverse Incentives

Dr. Robert Pearl and Jeremy Corr interviewed Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief at Kaiser Health News. Dr. Rosenthal does not mince words within this podcast, or in her bestselling book, An American Sickness, as well as other articles she has carefully researched and written. Within this nearly one-hour interview, Rosenthal pointed out many perverse bugaboos found in U.S. healthcare – many of which I have previously written about over the years. But one particular comment she made was screaming at me. Largely unnoticed in mainstream media is the perverse incentive for insurance companies to have little motivation to keep costs down. Yes, you heard me right.

Under the ACA, a well-intentioned, but flawed regulation was directed at insurance companies to spend 80 to 85 percent of premiums on medical care – a much larger chunk than what was spent by some insurers in the pre-ACA era. Put another way, insurers are bound by this rule to not spend more than 20 percent of individual and 15 percent of small-group premium revenue on administration, marketing and profit. On the surface, this seems to make sense. Insurance companies must spend a higher proportion of premiums on medical care, rather than retain as profit. However, insurers can skirt around this issue by paying inflated medical bills so that they can retain a larger piece of the cost pie. This certainly benefits the medical providers, as well. To be sure, this is seldom (if ever) admitted by industry insiders – and is also very difficult to prove this is intentionally done.

My Takeaway: No wonder why larger employers and states are looking to bypass the inflated appearance of negotiated ‘discounts’ arranged by insurance companies, and instead, directly negotiate payment arrangements with providers based on methods tied to lower Medicare costs. But when this happens, using the state of North Carolina as an example, hospitals and insurers balk at this approach.

Health Affairs Blog – Health Costs Major Concern for Americans

This blog is a direct result of the previous behaviors briefly described earlier. Cost-shifting fatigue is taking its toll on the payers. One quarter of surveyed U.S. adults reported that cost was the nation’s most pressing healthcare issue, while 61 percent indicated that paying higher premiums (or a greater portion of medical expenses) was a “major concern.” About one-half of U.S. adults worry they will not have enough money to afford care.

My Takeaway: The ‘optics’ in healthcare are alive – indeed thriving.  The hypnotic messages you hear and see from many key stakeholders may not be the reality we wish and hope to have. The desire to ‘reform’ our healthcare infrastructure to become more affordable with better outcomes runs contrary with how major stakeholders are being incentivized and motivated to act. Re-engineering appropriate incentives (and disincentives) is necessary before we can obtain meaningful progress. Until this happens, the chairs are on the Titanic are merely being rearranged for appearance purposes only.

Skepticism, especially in healthcare, can be a virtue. Accepting the truth that this is happening is the first step of recovery.

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