Em­ploy­ers tar­get spinal care as next big wellness idea

With back pain rep­re­sent­ing about 10% of health­care costs, some smart com­pa­nies are tak­ing steps to re­duce the aches

Employee Benefit News - - CONTENTS - BY AMANDA EISEN­BERG

With back pain rep­re­sent­ing about 10% of health­care costs, some smart com­pa­nies are tak­ing steps to re­duce the aches.

For em­ploy­ers seek­ing to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce their health­care spend — as well as make a dif­fer­ence in their em­ploy­ees’ health — med­i­cal and ben­e­fits ex­perts point to back pain re­lief as the low-hang­ing fruit.

Al­most half of Amer­i­can adults have a mus­cu­loskele­tal con­di­tion like back pain, cost­ing em­ploy­ers around $213 bil­lion in an­nual treat­ment and em­ployee ab­sen­teeism, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the United States Bone and Joint Ini­tia­tive. Back pain alone ac­counts for 10% of health­care costs and is a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

By tar­get­ing back pain through wellness pro­grams and low-cost in­ter­ven­tions such as wear­ables, on-site clin­ics with chi­ro­prac­tors or phys­i­cal ther­a­pists and acupunc­ture, in­dus­try ex­perts con­tend that em­ploy­ers can min­i­mize the much costlier use of med­i­ca­tions and ma­jor surgery.

Poor pos­ture is a ma­jor cul­prit, and tar­get­ing it can be the first line of de­fense against de­bil­i­tat­ing back pain. That’s one area smart em­ploy­ers are fo­cus­ing on.

EY Is­rael, a branch of global tax and au­dit­ing firm Ernst & Young, part­nered with wear­ables tech­nol­ogy ven­dor Up­Right to en­cour­age EY em­ploy­ees to cor­rect their pos­ture. A de­vice is placed on the lower or up- per back and vi­brates once it de­tects a slouch, help­ing em­ploy­ees be­come more cog­nizant of how they sit.

“The re­al­ity is that most busi­ness­men and women spend eight to 12 hours a day hunched over at their desks, which leads to back pain, de­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity, poor health and missed work days,” says Oded Co­hen, Up­Right’s founder and CEO. “By grad­u­ally and con­sis­tently train­ing back and core mus­cles, Up­Right helped par­tic­i­pants build mus­cle mem­ory to im­prove their pos­ture.”

Thirty-one em­ploy­ees par­tic­i­pated in a six-week EY pi­lot pro­gram, dur­ing which 85% be­came more aware of their pos­ture, 71% felt more con­fi­dent as a re­sult of bet­ter pos- ture and 66% strength­ened their core mus­cles. Up­Right plans to con­tinue its cor­po­rate wellness pro­gram with other com­pa­nies, Co­hen says.

Another ap­proach em­ploy­ers should con­sider, ex­perts say, is to give em­ploy­ees ac­cess to chi­ro­prac­tors and phys­i­cal ther­a­pists at an on-site clinic. Th­ese spe­cial­ists can in­ter­vene with back prob­lems be­fore costlier med­i­cal treat­ments are needed. Plus, phys­i­cal ther­apy and chi­ro­prac­tic ser­vices are of­ten cov­ered by a ma­jor­ity of em­ploy­ers.

“Bot­tom line is a re­turn on in­vest­ment,” says Mark Niebuhr, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist with Marathon Health, a com­pany that op­er­ates work­place health cen­ters for em­ploy­ers. “If the ser­vices that are pro­vided are cost ef­fec­tive, it will pay for it­self.”

Back pain is the No. 1 di­ag­no­sis Niebuhr sees at the clinic, and he works with em­ploy­ers to ed­u­cate them on top­ics like in­jury pre­ven­tion or how to im­prove pos­ture dur­ing “lunch-and-learn” sem­i­nars. So when em­ploy­ees come to the on-site clinic dur­ing the day, Niebuhr acts like a “me­chanic,” giv­ing em­ploy­ees tune­ups and help­ing them in­crease the func­tion of their mus­cle tis­sue.

Th­ese kinds of ser­vices are im­por­tant of­fer­ings, ex­perts say, be­cause they are cost-ef­fec­tive and safer than re­ly­ing on surgery or painkillers to treat chronic and de­bil­i­tat­ing em­ployee back pain.

Claims costs for in­jured work­ers who are pre­scribed opi­oids are four times greater than em­ploy­ees treated with­out the use of opi­oids, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit Na­tional Safety Coun­cil. Mean­while, surgery and as­so­ci­ated tests like MRIs also send health­care spend­ing sky­rock­et­ing. About 50% of all mus­cu­loskele­tal health­care spend­ing is surgery-re­lated.

Em­ploy­ees with ac­cess to de­ci­sion-mak­ing tools, such as ev­i­dence-based videos, are more likely to pur­sue non-sur­gi­cal in­ter­ven­tions, ex­perts note.

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