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
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.