While studies show they have lost favor in recent years, biometric screenings are still a popular offering. According to the Kaiser Foundation, among large organizations that provide health benefits, 38% include biometric screenings.

Though widely utilized, some experts question whether biometric screenings can live up to the hype. As such, it’s worth taking a closer look at why employers include biometric screenings as a part of their wellness program and whether there is a better way to achieve the same aims.

But first, just what is a biometric screening?

What Is A Biometric Screening?

Biometric screenings are general health exams that measure a variety of physical characteristics to provide employers with a picture of employees’ overall health. The most common biometric data obtained include:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Waist circumference
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood Glucose
  • Cholesterol

Biometric screenings can either be done at the doctor's office, where employees make their own screening appointments or on-site at the office. Sometimes, health coaching is offered to employees identified as high-risk to provide education and improve employee health.

Why Do Employers Offer Biometric Screenings?

Biometric screenings are popular for a reason. They are associated with several valuable outcomes that explain their widespread use. Unfortunately, these benefits are somewhat exaggerated.

Reason #1: Biometric Screenings Provide Objective And Reliable Risk Assessments

Biometric screenings are often presented as a more accurate version of health risk assessments (HRA), which ask employees various questions about their health through a survey. Because employees may not have the most precise knowledge regarding their health status and may feel reluctant to share their personal information, employers are often concerned that HRAs are inaccurate.

Since the tests used for biometric screenings rely on more "objective" measures, they are often thought to provide accurate and reliable pictures of employees' health risks.

Refutation: Many biometric screenings, especially those related to weight and body size, can provide inaccurate or misleading results. For example, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that BMI is a misleading measure for 18% of the country. The data shows that 12% of males and 3% of females identified as overweight according to BMI had normal body fat percentages.

 

Reason #2: Biometric Screenings Help Identify Conditions Early Enough To Impact Treatment Trajectory

The earlier a condition is caught, the better its prognosis is. Given that some individuals who undergo biometric screenings are unaware of any conditions they may have, the tests should help them learn about their risk factors early enough to make a significant difference in their long-term health. For example, through the screening process, a participant could learn they have high blood pressure and are at risk of developing heart disease. This might prompt them to work on improving their health before the health condition becomes a chronic disease.

Refutation: The ability of biometric screenings to produce a sizeable number of life-changing early detections depends largely on their accuracy and reliability. As was noted below the first claimed benefit, some of the more commonly used tests lack an appropriate level of objectivity or reliability. Moreover, many employees are likely already aware of their main risk factors. For example, individuals who are identified as "high risk" because of their weight or cholesterol levels probably had some idea of their health status. Confirming their suspicions through screening is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on the trajectory of their conditions or save on health care costs

 

Reason #3: Biometric Screenings Motivate Employees To Adopt Healthy Behaviors

Biometric screenings are often implemented under the assumption that once employees "know their numbers," this will motivate them to change their behaviors in ways that allow them to mitigate their health risks.

Refutation: Though it’s intuitive to think one would change their unhealthy habits after a biometric screening result indicating the presence of risk factors, experts argue that credible empirical evidence is hard to come by. In their editorial on the usefulness of employer-sponsored biometric screenings, Drs. Bruce Sherman and Carol Addy note, "efforts to find published evidence regarding the impact of biometric screening on individual behaviors have proved surprisingly fruitless." Thus, while biometric screenings may result in behavior change, there is currently insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

What Wellness Solutions Should Organizations Offer Instead?

Given that biometric screenings may not be good for what employers hope to achieve with them, the question arises, what should be done instead.

The key thing to note is that the recommended behavior changes are similar for many of the health risks that biometric screenings are supposed to test for. Since most preventative measures are based on increasing physical activity and improving nutrition, employers are better off directing their limited budgets towards implementing a workplace wellness program with solutions that enhance the health of their workers.

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