When Miami Children’s Hospital human resources specialist Margaret Gibson heard her employer was starting a wellness initiative last year, she jumped to apply. Gibson, a former high school gymnast, had become so obese that she could no longer walk the mall, and her blood sugar was sky high.
“I was turning 50 and I was very overweight, and I wanted to change my life,” said Gibson. “Sometimes you need something to hit you in the forehead to realize you need change.”
Little did Gibson know the odyssey she would undertake over the next year once she signed up for the hospital’s Lose to Win program. She changed her diet, cut out carbohydrates completely, worked out with a personal trainer two days a week and by herself once a week, and met with a dietician weekly.
Eight months later, Gibson has lost 95 pounds and no longer needs medication to control her blood sugar or cholesterol. Not only can she now walk the mall, but Gibson plans to compete in her first 5K walk next week at the hospital. And, the changes have motivated her husband to take control of his health.
“I can’t believe this transformation,” said Gibson. “I feel like I got a fresh start at life.”
Miami Children’s Hospital is one of a growing number of hospitals around South Florida and the country to launch employee wellness, exercise and weight-loss initiatives in recent years. While corporate America in general is taking small steps to promote employee wellness —such as providing gym discounts or smoking-cessation workshops — hospitals, conscious of their mission to promote health, are realizing they cannot overlook their own employees’ health.
“A lot of times people go to the doctors’ office and they’re intimidated,” said Dr. Anthony Musto, an exercise physiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Here, we can provide a wellness program that is tailored to their abilities. It’s almost like a Head Start program.”
At the University of Miami, where 10,000 employees work at various medical campuses, the school has launched a supervised exercise program for moderate- to high-risk individuals. The program costs employees $300, which can be paid through a payroll deduction. Twenty people have signed up to so far to work with an exercise instructor.
The university also offers a more basic walking program called Walking Canes, a 12-week program in which employees are provided with pedometers. Participants wear their pedometers for seven days and receive a baseline. They are given weekly goals and log their miles online weekly.
The top 10 point-getters are rewarded with lunch with UM President Donna Shalala. This year, 700 employees participated.
As with most programs, though, UM has found that success is hard to maintain after a program has ended.
“A small percentage continue the walking, but most need structure,” Musto said. For that reason, UM tries to reinforce the wellness mission with signs throughout the campus saying “Take the stairs” and by reminding employees of the 1.5-mile walking trail that snakes around the campus.
“If you walk the trail every day, for 30 minutes a day, you have fulfilled your daily exercise needs,” Musto said.
Miami Children’s Hospital decided to take an aggressive approach to employee fitness and weight loss after Janet Lara-Vital, director of the Total Rewards and Wellness Program, noticed that employees would work out at the gym but never seemed to lose weight — and even, occasionally, got heavier.
“I started talking to them about their diets, and we soon realized these people could not do this on their own,” said Lara-Vital.
At that point, the hospital didn’t have a dietician on staff. Lara-Vital presented a proposal to hospital management for a program that would teach employees about nutrition, fitness and wellness. Management bought into the concept, and hired a part-time dietician. Now, two nurse practitioners work exclusively with employees in the program.
The program began in 2013 with 20 participants. Employees are screened by a committee before they are accepted into the program, and have to agree to pay penalties of hundreds of dollars if they drop out.
“They have to understand this involves a major lifestyle commitment,” said Lara-Vital. “Some are not ready for a change.”
Out of the hospital’s first Total Rewards and Wellness class, 13 completed the program and seven dropped out. Employees ranged in age from late 20s to 70s, and included secretaries and nursing managers. The class lost a total of 628 pounds. The second class, which recently graduated, lost 517 pounds. Winners of the challenge received an iPad and a $100 gift card at graduation.
Sergio Gomez, a 34-year-old information technology specialist who enrolled in the program, was 60 pounds overweight.
“Being overweight was stopping me from doing a lot of things,” he said. “I would get tired a lot. I definitely needed to do something for myself.”
Gomez, who never ate vegetables or salads previously, sampled various healthy dishes at “lunch and learn” programs at the hospital. He also learned about healthy portions and the ratio of meat to vegetable to starch that he should adopt in his meals.
Weekends were the hardest for Gomez, but being able to email his dietician on the spot and ask for advice helped enormously, he said. Gomez also found camaraderie with fellow participants helpful. They would meet for gym dates and travel to Key Biscayne to exercise in the morning.
Gomez, a married father of a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, now runs three miles twice a week and is preparing for his first 5K run. He has reached his goal weight of 180 pounds, and has motivated his wife to get healthier.
“In the past, I used to take my wife to dinner for Italian food or at a steakhouse and eat unhealthy stuff,” he said. “Now, instead of going out to dinner, I barbecue on the grill, a nice chicken kebab with lots of portobello mushrooms. It’s like I found a hobby.”
To encourage all of its employees, Miami Children’s Hospital has partnered with a farmers market to bring its foods to the hospital once a week. What started out small in the hospital courtyard has blossomed into a hugely popular event. To make it easier to shop, employees are offered the option of paying for their items through payroll deductions.
Mount Sinai Medical Center also offers a variety of health and fitness programs for employees, from on-site Zumba and CrossFit classes to on-site Weight Watchers meetings to lunch-and-learn sessions with free salad bar presentations. Additionally, the hospital became a tobacco-free campus in 2013, and decided not to hire new applicants who use tobacco products (they are screened for by blowing into an instrument that detects tobacco).
The Miami Beach hospital also reduced insurance premiums for nonsmoking employees and those who exhibit improved biometric goals, offers employees biweekly deliveries of organic fruits and vegetables and free range eggs, and has hired an on-site health coach to meet with employees on a one-to-one basis.
Refusing to hire overweight employees or reducing insurance premiums for those who lose weight is not an option at this point, however, Mount Sinai CEO Steve Sonenreich said.
“It's a one-step-at-a-time situation,” he said. “The change we made in tobacco was enormous. By not hiring people who are tobacco users, that’s going to have a tremendous impact. The idea is to provide carrots, to incentivize people by offering a lower insurance premium [for nonsmokers]. But not hiring people who are overweight — that's difficult to do. We need to encourage people to eat properly and exercise.”
And while Mount Sinai does not have an on-site gym, it does sit on 55 acres of waterfront land, so there are walking programs galore for the hospital’s 3,700 employees.
Baptist Hospital also launched an aggressive program to improve its employees’ health. Called My Unlimited Potential, it is an intensive, one-year program designed for small groups and individual support.
Participants are assigned a nurse practitioner, an employee-wellness educator, an exercise physiologist and a registered dietician, who all travel to the employees’ workplace to make it more convenient for them. They receive extensive health testing at the start of the program, which runs for 12 weeks, six months or 12 months. Employees with at least two modifiable health-risk factors are eligible, but must commit to the intensive program.
The first 12 weeks include three-day-a-week workouts, weekly nurse visits, a group grocery tour and a one-hour nutrition information session. They even receive a 45-minute home visit (and refrigerator inspection). The dietician follows up with them for one year.
At the 12-week and one-year mark, participants attend a dinner with their fellow participants to share their stories.
Nicole Perez, a 31-year-old claims specialist at Baptist, is one of the success stories. Perez, who is married with two children, lost 100 pounds over 10 months in the program.
“I didn't know exactly what I should look for in labels, whether it should be calories, ingredients or what,” she noted. “They take you to a grocery store and instruct you — you should look in this area, not this area.”
Perez also received an education from her fitness coach, who showed her how to use the elliptical machine and taught her a variety of exercises to strengthen certain muscles, including circuit training and jumping jacks.
“I just thought you could do the treadmill and bike,” said Perez.
Perez’s co-workers, husband and sisters, watching her get “skinnier and skinnier, really melting away,” jumped on the bandwagon and are getting fit, too. Her two sisters have lost 50 pounds each and her husband, 25 pounds. Her children are eating healthier, too.
“I’ve learned so much in these 10 months,” she said. “There’s no going back. I’ve learned it’s OK to eat in moderation. I think it's amazing what Baptist has done. This has been a life change.”