May 17, 2018
An estimated 126.6 million Americans (one in two adults) are affected by a musculoskeletal condition such as back pain—comparable to the total percentage of Americans living with a chronic lung or heart condition—costing an estimated $213 billion in annual treatment, care and lost wages, according to a report issued in 2016 by the United States Bone and Joint Initiative (USBJI).
Back pain alone accounts for 10% of healthcare costs and is a major contributor to lost productivity Therefore, for employers seeking to significantly reduce their healthcare spend, medical and benefits experts point to back pain relief as the low-hanging fruit, Marathon Health, a corporate healthcare provider, claims.
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.
Today, employers spend more than $1,200 per employee per year on musculoskeletal issues—almost three times as much as they spend on cardiovascular disease, says Jonathan Edwards, manager of Analytics and Consulting at Verscend Technologies, a Nepal-based provider of data-driven healthcare solutions.
“Our data show that about 35% of that is back-related cost,” he says.
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.
One of them, Marathon Health reports, is EY Israel, a branch of the global tax and auditing firm Ernst & Young,—which has partnered with wearables technology vendor UpRight to encourage its employees to correct their posture. A device is placed on the lower or upper back and vibrates once it detects a slouch, keep employees conscious of just how they are sitting.
“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 UpRight CEO Oded Cohen “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 pilot program, during which 85% became more aware of their posture, 71% felt more confident as a result of better posture and 66% strengthened their core muscles. UpRight plans to continue its corporate wellness program with other companies, Cohen says.
Another approach employers might 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.
What’s more, physical therapy and chiropractic services are often covered by a majority of employer programs, already,
“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.”
Another reason these services are important offerings? They are more cost-effective and safer than relying on opiates and other painkillers.
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.
Surgery and associated tests like MRIs will also send healthcare spending skyrocketing. About 50% of all musculoskeletal healthcare spending is surgery-related, says Verscend’s Edwards, citing the analytics company’s data.
To evaluate the effectiveness of their back-pain benefits, employers should take into account what they spend on various medical and pharmaceutical treatments, as well as the cost of lost productivity, says Edwards. By analyzing these data, they can determine which approaches give them the greatest return and are best-suited to their workforce.
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