Flu shots not saving employers money, study says

A recent American study suggests employers who offer free vaccination programs may not be saving themselves any money or decreasing absenteeism rates.

But employers shouldn’t be rushing out and cancelling their vaccination programs based on these results, warns Keiji Fukuda, co-author of the study.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that organizations that offer free flu shots have higher employee morale and improved relations in general.

The study, Effectiveness and Cost-Benefit of Influenza Vaccination of Healthy Working Adults, conducted by a team of doctors at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention based in Georgia, looked at 700 healthy workers aged 18 to 64 at the Ford Motor Company in Michigan over a two-year period. The research suggests that while vaccination continues to show health benefits, employers that offer free vaccination shots may not be realizing any cost-benefits in doing so.

“We found that it was not cost-beneficial in either year (of the study),” says Fukuda, doctor and chief of epidemiology section of the influenza branch of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).

“In most normal years you probably wouldn’t realize cost-savings by vaccinating this group. Clearly it prevented illness but it still wasn’t cost-saving,” says Fukuda.

Fukuda says intangible benefits need to be assessed before dismissing employer-paid vaccination programs. It also shows employees that employers care about their health which can translate into a powerful bargaining tool for employers.

“The main point is that in making the decision to offer vaccination, employers need to think about it more broadly, in that it may be more than just about saving money. That kind of thinking (that focuses on cost-saving) is too narrow.

“Workers regard this as a good benefit and it does raise morale. It has all these kinds of benefits so employers have to look at that. These decisions should not be based solely on savings,” says Fukuda.

And, still, the numbers indicate that influenza-related illnesses are costly to employers, and that vaccination programs are saving some Canadian employers.

According to the Canadian Coalition for Influenza Immunization (CCII), B.C. Hydro reported saving $160,000 in one year of its vaccination program. The organization also cites another study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995, that found an average saving of US $46.85 per vaccinated employee.

Influenza-related illnesses cost Canadian employers more than $500 million during the 1997-1998 flu season, according to the CCII.

The costs were associated with absenteeism, replacement and overtime costs, interruption of services or product delivery, lost or reduced sales and productivity, and health-benefit costs. One in four working Canadians will become infected this winter, with the average employee absent three to five working days.

Renzo Bertolini, specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, agrees employers need to assess the impacts of these programs, and other wellness and health initiatives in the workplace, regardless of the monetary value.

“As a workplace issue (immunization) is fairly new and there is a real tendency these days to attach a cost to everything. We can’t attach a cost to our health,” says Bertolini.

The NCID study contradicts previous studies that found economic savings associated with flu shots. Taking those studies, coupled with the overwhelming scientific data that shows the effectiveness of vaccinations in preventing the flu — a 70 to 85 per cent prevention rate — employers were eager to introduce the programs.

But the NCID study, says Fukuda, should be a warning to employers that spending to vaccinate healthy workers is not going to save you money.

“These studies point out that we shouldn’t rush to assume vaccination programs are cost-beneficial.”
While employers should consider the context of the study, in Canada, vaccination programs are being mandated and in some cases paid for by governments.

Ontario recently announced it would provide universal access to a publicly funded immunization program for flu prevention. The province is the first jurisdiction in North America to offer such a program. The immunization was originally offered to people over 65-years old, emergency and health-care workers and people with chronic medical conditions.

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