Fit for Duty
By Tamer Abouras
There’s something tragically ironic about decrying government surveillance programs like the NSA or defending encryption in 2016. In a day and age where our personal information — name, address, email, phone number, geographic location — are all sold by social networks to advertisers almost constantly, the protest that anything about our lives be kept private is one that increasingly seems at odds with the direction society is headed.
Perhaps that’s why — even twenty years ago when HIPAA was passed — we’ve turned to the next best thing: not allowing others to freely obtain or share our information without permission. There’s a reasonable expectation and desire to keep some things just for yourself — beyond the reach of others in your life that aren’t loved ones. When applied to your employer, for instance, this is one of the very important functions of your organization’s human resources department.
One place we’re terribly persnickety about keeping our secrets is with regard to health information and our medical records. In spite of the fact that one in three Americans had their healthcare information breached in 2015, according to The International Data Corp., there’s still an instinctive protectiveness we have about those records being made public.
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Considering all of this — and that job interviewers aren’t even allowed to ask you questions about your age, much less your health — a recent report by The Wall Street Journal about a push by a handful of large companies to create “employee health metrics” or ratings seems more than a bit intrusive and beyond the pale, even in these times.
According to the article, “A group of employers, including International Business Machines Corp., PepsiCo Inc. and Johnson & Johnson, are weighing how to publicly report — and measure — the health of their workforce. Such ratings would give shareholders, corporate directors, managers and consumers insight into a company's commitment to improving employee health, and whether such efforts are getting results. Chronic illness, tobacco use and obesity can drive up a company's medical costs, but a growing body of research suggests they can also affect productivity and performance.”
Although there’s a stipulation that the information would be presented in the aggregate, rather than illegally distributed, the language of the article suggests that the implementation of such a rating could open the door to terminations which are ostensibly the result of poor health.
Just listen to Derek Yach, chair of the aforementioned working group and chief health officer of the Vitality Group, a unit of South African insurer Discovery Ltd., who says “ … rating workforce health gives investors and consumers another way to assess a given company's productivity, management and commitment to employees' wellbeing.”
"We want this to be a serious management tool that goes alongside financial management tools," said Yach. "The level of obesity in the workforce, stress and depression I consider material to the business performance of a company."
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While the article notes that assigning one general score to possibly thousands of workers is a “tricky proposition,” there’s still every indication that some employers unsurprisingly want the innovation and see it as the best way forward, according to Paul Mendelowitz, medical director, health informatics at Active Health, a New York health analytics firm and an independent subsidiary of Aetna Inc.
And here’s the best news: Mendelowitz’s Active Health is working to develop such an algorithm for a company’s overall employee population’s health, something they plan to begin testing with employer clients in a few months.
Here’s the thing — the differentiating physical qualities between professional athletes and average schleps are patently obvious. There’s no need to create systems which will invariably start tying the number of sales calls you made (or didn’t make) in a month to the four pounds you’ve gained since winter began.
And how’s this for a novel idea: Instead of worrying about who else our health information could be shared with, how about working a little harder to make sure the records we aren’t voluntarily offering up don’t suffer security breaches so often?