SANTA ROSA -- In order for wellness to be more than just hype, employers need to take careful steps to adequately define what it means while promoting the concept as a partnership with employees that will engender an overall healthy environment.

Employers should also expect to make an investment of both time and resources if they are to be successful.

That was the prevailing message from a panel assembled for the North Bay Business Journal's Health Care Conference and inaugural Healthiest Companies Awards. The panelists agreed corporate wellness is a proven strategy to increase employee productivity, reduce absenteeism and curb ever-increasing health care costs, among other benefits.

The conference also honored the 14 companies with stand-out employee wellness programs.  They were profiled in the Business Journal Nov. 28.

[caption id="attachment_43842" align="alignleft" width="132" caption="Dr. David Sobel"][/caption]

"In the long run, with a long-term investment, the changes in improving health and lifestyle really can yield a big difference in medical utilization and disease prevention," said keynote speaker Dr. David Sobel, medical director of regional health for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.  "The real lever is changing the culture."The panel also featured Scott Setterlund, employer relations specialist for Sutter Health; Jill Kinney, managing director, Clubsource Development Partners LLC,  and co-founder, Club One Inc; and Dr. Gary Greensweig, chief medical officer, St. Joseph Health System--Sonoma County. A separate panel featured Mike Purvis, chief administrative officer for Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, and Walt Mickens, CEO of Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, both of whom discussed the two largest hospital projects in Sonoma and Napa counties. 

Dr. Sobel, who is widely published and quoted on the issue of wellness, focused on three key strategic questions -- where is the excess capacity and underutilized resource within the health care system? Where are the mismatches between patient needs and health care resources? And how can a "win-win-win" solution be created for patients, employers and health care providers?

Patients, not doctors, are the actual primary care providers of most health issues, Dr. Sobel said, noting that a patient typically spends about one hour per year with their physician versus 2,000 hours at their work place. An employer should leverage this factor by viewing employees as partners, not patients, and by shifting away from treating one's body with medical treatments to a behavioral health shift that promotes integrated wellness. 

Health promotion and wellness are unlikely to impact short-term health care costs, Dr. Sobel said. Instead, productivity, health, morale and long-term health care costs will be impacted, and employers should not be looking for a quick fix.

"This is not flavor of the month stuff," Dr. Sobel said. "Workers will be skeptical of that. When people start feeling healthier and better about themselves, they start to treat themselves better and focus on being healthier."

That will in turn  boost productivity while lowering health care premiums, all the panelists said.

Ms. Kinney of Club One noted how the health club industry has shifted over the past 30 years increasingly into medical fitness -- a positive development that incorporates preventive health, which wasn't always the focus for much of the health care industry or health clubs. A healthier workforce is a happier workforce, she said.

"There is now great evidence about the roll that happiness plays in wellness," she said. " It's the the third prong on the ring -- we've known that healthy eating and exercise were good, but happiness is a just as important."

 For health clubs, "our old pitch was," with exercise, "you would die later," she added.

Medical fitness is now a $1.4 billion industry,with over 1,100 such centers across the country, she said. 

Corporate wellness isn't necessarily a new phenomenon, but is has evolved quickly within the past five years or so, according to Ms. Kinney.

"It began as a recruiting tool, and then shifted about five years ago to health care cost reduction," she said. "Today, it's more about a cultural commitment."

As the concept of wellness continues to evolve, Ms. Kinney said the line between commercial health clubs, medical fitness and corporate wellness will increasingly become blurred, as partnerships between medical and health club operations emerge.

Mr. Setterlund, of Sutter Health, stressed the need for clearly defining wellness on an individual basis. Mr. Setterlund, who played professional football with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1980s, said wellness is "very dynamic and very fluid."

Companies must find a clear reference point, and one way of doing so is having the C-suite executive team lead by example, Mr. Sutterlund said. Cultures -- be they sports teams or workforces -- are defined by symbols, he said.

"We need to support imaginative behavior -- message the importance of health," he said. "McDonald's spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to kids, who don't have jobs. Why would they do that?

"We need to look at, instead of the cost of health care,  the total value of employee health," he added. "Wellness really is how we define it, and wellness doesn't stay the same. It changes, and we need to surround ourselves with an environment that supports wellness."

Dr. Greensweig, of St. Joesph Health System -- Sonoma County,  touched on moving away from treating illness to embracing health, particularly at hospitals.

"We need to move away from the old paradigm that, as a health care organization, we provide health care, to the new paradigm that we create health," he said.

Dr. Greensweig also noted that Sonoma County has mostly small-to-mid-sized employers, which are less likely to have a huge wellness facility or strategy. But that shouldn't prevent employers from seeking wellness strategies, he said, and they should explore partnership possibilities with other parties such as the Northern California Center for Well-Being or with local governments. 

"I don't think you have to do it alone," he said.

On the hospital panel, both Mr. Purvis, of Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, and Mr. Mickens, of Queen of the Valley, touched on how the new projects will impact employee health, the delivery of care and the jobs that each hospital project is creating.

Sutter is building a brand new $284 million hospital next to the Wells Fargo Center for Arts in Santa Rosa, and Queen of the Valley is about halfway through building  a new $130 million, 72,000-square-foot  acute care facility.