The Sandblog

< Back to Blog

The More You Know

by Mike Sullivan Cubic Health | March 17 2016

I remember sitting in my first accounting class in grad school and being absolutely amazed by what you could do with numbers and how the story could change dramatically with very subtle changes. Instinctively it didn’t seem to make sense—aren’t numbers black and white? How can there be any grey in financial information?

It turns out there is an enormous amount of grey, and not having all of the information and not fully understanding the underlying assumptions/decisions means the numbers could, in reality, be very different depending on the variables. The same is true in workplace wellness.

For example, it’s certainly possible to prioritize a specific health issue based on what you understand to be a leading cause of absence or extended disability leave. But is it the right issue that will provide the largest impact to the largest number of your employees? What are the other questions you should be asking yourselves before embarking on initiatives targeting a specific health issue? 

Data, Data and More Data

First, it’s important to look at as much data as you have access to. For example, in a significant number of disability cases in the workplace, only a primary reason for disability may be provided by the physician—and it may not be the underlying issue, but rather the presenting symptom. Because only a primary reason is listed is most cases, there is no consideration of other co-existing chronic condition(s) that could be at the root of the health issue for the employee. Hence, the more data you can access, the clearer the picture becomes.  For example, the primary cause for being considered disabled may be depression, but there are a host of other health issues that could have led to the depression. 

In my job, getting the complete picture is a necessity. For example, an organization is looking to determine where to spend their dollars allocated to health promotion and I’ve been asked to look at their short term (STD) and long term disability (LTD) experiences and provide advice. The data in their case indicated that diabetes ranked low as a reason for disability claims. That said, just looking at the data for STD and LTD gives me only a basic picture of the health issues of this particular organization—a few pieces of the puzzle.

By enriching the disability data by combining it with information from their prescription drug claims data, we can determine what other health issues an individual is dealing with. The results of the flushed out picture for this organization were remarkable. Whereas diabetes ranked low through assessment of the STD and LTD claims, this new picture told us that there were a very large number of diabetic employees on disability and that, in fact, diabetes was far more prevalent in the STD and LTD experience than met the eye on the surface.

Begin at the Beginning

In establishing workplace wellness priorities, and in measuring the success of these initiatives, it makes sense to suggest that your strategic decisions on investments be made on an assessment of the bigger picture using as much relevant data as possible. 

Where to begin? There are a number of ways for you to access health information. I know that ASEBP offers school jurisdictions the opportunity to request health profile reports for their jurisdiction. Here’s a sample of the kinds of data you can expect to see in those. While I live in the world of numbers and data, I know that anecdotal information and informal research can be just as informative. The rule of thumb is the more you know, the smarter your choices for wellness priorities will be.

Mike Sullivan

As president and co-founder of Cubic Health—a leader in benefit plan sustainability management—Mike uses detailed analytics and his background in pharmacy to design more cost effective and robust benefit plans for his clients. Despite his crippling fear of all forms of dance, 'Sully,' as he is quite originally called, is the one you want on the floor when you have a truckload of benefit plan usage data to analyze. Because you never really know when that skill will come in handy.