Limiting Liability, Improving Productivity

Occupational health programs may improve employee health – and balance sheets

Healthcare costs, especially for small businesses, continue to rise rapidly, constituting an increasing share of business expenses. The average, annual job-based health insurance premium in Washington state grew from $6,500 to nearly $13,860-per-person between 2000 and 2009, an increase of 113 percent, according to Washington, D.C.-based Families USA, a consumer health organization.

Regardless of size or industry, it is important that businesses keep employees healthy and productive. Healthy employees can create a competitive advantage through increased productivity, fewer injuries that require leave or disability pay and decreased employee turnover. A recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that for every $1 of direct medical and pharmacy costs spent by a company, another $2.33 is lost due to decreased productivity as a result of a medical condition.

Contracting with a comprehensive medical and wellness program provider is crucial to improving medical outcomes. Outlined below are five important considerations to review when contracting a wellness program provider:

Inquire about training. When examining an occupational medicine provider, make sure that the physician(s) have completed residency training in occupational medicine. Residency programs for occupational medicine are few and far between, so it's important to be extra careful during the screening process to ensure your company works with a highly qualified provider.

Choose a clinic that specializes in workplace injuries.The first few moments after a workplace injury are critical for the patient and the business. Occupational medical clinics that specialize in work-related injuries are usually more familiar with the necessary paperwork and care needed for on-the-job injuries. Oftentimes, an injured employee will visit an urgent care center, which can be more expensive and provide less adequate care. Urgent care clinics often do not work exclusively with people injured on the job and may not be as familiar with their medical and paperwork needs.

Post-injury follow up is critical to keep injured employees working.Qualified occupational medicine providers understand the importance of follow-up medical care. Follow-up care provides a better opportunity to keep the employee at work and productive. On-the-job injuries are often most costly when the employee cannot work and must live on disability payments.

Occupational medical clinics have two sets of patients: the employees and the business.  Not only do occupational health providers have the best interest of the individual patients in mind, they also hold the best interest of the business, which helps to minimize lost work time and permanent disability.

Preventative wellness programs can keep healthcare costs down. Qualified occupational physicians are also trained in public health, and can take a group perspective to healthcare. Occupational health physicians can help identify and mitigate potential hazards for a business before injuries occur. Thanks to a deep understanding of Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules and regulations and the ability to identify potential hazards in the workplace, these clinics are specially prepared for workplace health situations. In addition, drug testing and routine physicals are useful tactics for businesses to prevent work injuries.

Despite the advantages of implementing a comprehensive wellness program, many businesses are simply unaware of the services and benefits offered. Partnering with a comprehensive medical and wellness program provider can help assess the employees' overall health, develop a customized plan to improve medical outcomes, implement the intervention and measure the results – benefiting both a company's employees and its bottom line.

Dr. Hall is medical director and occupational health specialist at Adventist Health JobCare in Portland.