Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another Whole Foods Uproar

Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey has done it again. Unless you live in a cave someplace you probably have heard of this company and John Mackey through one of the recent "controversies" he has stirred up. First was his apparent attempt to talk up his company while talking down a competitor on some message boards while posing as someone other than himself. While he was doing this he was working towards buying and eventually did buy that competitor, Wild Oats. He later authored a Wall Street Journal opinion piece which caused a stir because he put forth what some felt were some bad ideas on ways to make our health care system work better for us, you can read it here. The list goes on and on and all it takes is a quick google search on him to find a slew of controversial stories. The bottom line is Mackey is a strident Libertarian who espouses those principles loudly and that does not always make him friends. For the most part I agree with much of Mackey's views so perhaps it is no surprise that his latest move seems reasonable to me as well.

Whole foods has introduced a new employee wellness program that they call the "Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive Program." Employee wellness programs are nothing new and with all the health care talk lately they seem to have taken off. Usually these are relatively uncontroversial but in this case, based on the news stories and the comments of people in response to those stories, it seems this one has got people upset. The basic idea of this program is that each employee has the opportunity to gain additional employee discounts on Whole foods products beyond the current employee discount by demonstrating certain biomaker achievements such as blood pressure and BMI targets. There is an article here that has the details of the program but make sure to click the insert flyers and read the actual literature on the program because the article itself is very misleading as to what the program really is.

The complaints I have heard about this are all pretty much focused on the fact that these markers are not really a very good indicator of health and therefore people should not be "punished" for not meeting these targets. This opinion is uninformed based on my reading of the program documentation. The base employee discount in place prior to the program remains in effect for all employees regardless of these numbers and the program simply allows an employee to increase the discount they receive beyond that base discount if they wish to participate. This punishes no one but does reward people for some things that are broadly accepted as being indications of an overall reduction in risk of certain types of medical problems which in my opinion is a good thing. While it is true that there are some cases where a BMI can be very misleading, for example bodybuilders, this is not the norm and according to most accepted science today the markers being used in this program are good indicators of health risks especially when you take them all together as the program does. For more information on BMI and its limitations have a look at what the CDC has to say here. Similarly the CDC comments on cholesterol here and blood pressure here. Based on the research I have done it is beyond comprehension to me how anyone could argue that the markers used in this program, especially in combination with one another, do not indicate an increased risk of future health problems which is what the program is aiming to prevent, how radical.

The one complaint that seems to have some merit is one of concern for privacy. It appears the program is worked through the company and the company is collecting this medical information on its employees so there needs to be a good system of policies and procedures in place to assure employees this information will not be distributed or used inappropriately. Ultimately the company needs to make the privacy policy known to employees and enforce it vigorously but each employee must decide for themselves if it is something they would like to participate in which is why this is a voluntary program. The bottom line is if this program gets one Whole Foods employee to modify their diet somewhat or start an exercise program to bring their markers to a healthier level (read reduced risk level) how can that possibly be a bad thing? Let me know what you think.

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