Study: UnitedHealth Group’s "JOIN for ME" Shows Promise as a Model to Fight Childhood Obesity by Involving the Entire Family

January 12, 2012
  • Evidence-based wellness program helps children and their parents lose weight, reducing risk of many health problems; emphasis is on whole-family lifestyle improvement
  • Raytheon first company to pilot program for employees in Rhode Island and Massachusetts

UnitedHealth Group’s (NYSE: UNH) first-of-its-kind, whole-family program to fight childhood obesity has the potential to become a national model, according to a new study.

JOIN for MESM, piloted with the Y of the USA and the YMCA of Greater Providence, R.I., demonstrated that the combination of whole-family engagement helped participants achieve significant reductions in excess weight.

The program engaged overweight and obese kids ages six to 17, along with their parents, in a series of learning sessions to achieve healthier weights through healthier family nutrition choices, increased activity, and lifestyle improvement tracking.

“Children who are overweight and obese are motivated to lose weight, but they can’t do it alone. They must have the support and full involvement of their families to support healthy eating choices and healthy family lifestyles that include exercise,” said Deneen Vojta, M.D., senior vice president, UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization and the study’s principal investigator. “JOIN for ME is a fun and practical solution that can easily be made available to the millions of families who struggle with childhood obesity. We look forward to supporting the launch of this model in communities around the nation.”

After six months, 84 percent of the original 155 participants in the JOIN for ME pilot completed the full program and achieved, on average, a 3.5-percent reduction in excess weight. Equally promising is that parents of participants also lost weight in the study, opening the door for new wellness models that engage the entire family.

“We were very pleased with the study results, which showed a statistically significant improvement in weight outcomes among participants. Equally impressive was the fact that more than eight in 10 remained engaged in the program,” said Gary Foster, Ph.D., professor of Medicine and Public Health and director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. Foster has been evaluating the effectiveness of the program with a team of medical experts over the last six months.

UnitedHealth Group and its businesses have introduced many community-based partnerships, wellness programs and health plan designs that are reimbursable, and encourage and empower people to take preventive steps and lead healthier lives. These new, evidence-based health interventions for high-risk populations include the Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance and the diabetes health plan.

Raytheon First Company to Pilot Program

Raytheon Co. (NYSE: RTN) found that many workplace wellness programs focused only on adult and employee health. JOIN for ME, however, focuses on helping employees improve the health of their children, providing important resources to families so they can work together to live a healthy lifestyle.

This unique approach, together with some very promising initial results from the pilot study, prompted Raytheon to launch a pilot program in October 2011 for children of employees based in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Some participants in the Raytheon pilot also will be given access to controller-free gaming devices that involve physical participation, such as Microsoft Kinect for Xbox360, to evaluate the effectiveness of gaming devices in promoting physical activity and improving weight outcomes among overweight or obese children.

Curbing a Growing Epidemic

About one-third of all American children are obese or overweight, leading to increased health risks, higher health care costs, and decreased parental productivity at work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States – nearly triple the rate from just 30 years ago – according to the CDC.

Weight problems often lead to more serious health consequences. Obese children are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC. Obese children and adolescents also have a greater risk of social and psychological problems, such as discrimination and poor self-esteem, which can continue into adulthood.i,ii,iii

Childhood obesity also represents a significant financial cost to families, communities, employers and the health care system. A study conducted for one large employer indicated that average per capita health insurance claims costs were as high as $2,907 in 2008 for an obese child and $10,789 for a child with type 2 diabetes, which is even higher than the average claims cost for adults with type 2 diabetes ($8,844).iv

How JOIN for ME Works

JOIN for ME is a 12-month community-based lifestyle improvement program for generally healthy children between the ages of six and 17 who are overweight or obese. Children and their families attend a series of 16 weekly, one-hour group classes at local Ys, workplace facilities or other community locations. Participants are introduced to evidence-based tools and strategies, as well as incentives to adopt healthier habits that lead to lifelong healthier weight. Sessions are led by a trained facilitator and cover topics such as reducing less healthy foods and drinks, getting and staying active, managing screen time, improving sleep habits, and understanding the link between moods and foods. After 16 weeks, participants are encouraged to attend monthly maintenance sessions for an additional eight months.

The JOIN for ME pilot was designed to provide affordable and accessible care in local communities, similar to UnitedHealth Group’s efforts to provide access to the evidence-based Diabetes Prevention Program, which helps people with prediabetes reduce their risk of developing full-blown diabetes. JOIN for ME can be offered as a workplace wellness program included in a company’s health benefit package. Different from most workplace wellness initiatives, JOIN for ME focuses on improving the health of the entire family that struggles with extra weight, underscoring the importance of social structures in lifestyle modification and behavior change.

As designed, the JOIN for ME program will be covered as part of the preventive care schedule for participants enrolled through employer-provided health insurance plans or government-sponsored Medicaid managed care plans through UnitedHealthcare in select markets. This means dependents of eligible employees or beneficiaries will have access to a community-based program to help them achieve healthier weight, while the employers or plan sponsors will be supporting better health for participating families, leading to lower health care costs due to fewer doctor and hospital visits.

At-risk children will be identified and referred for support through multiple channels such as primary care providers, school nurses, community health centers, school educators and the Y, as well as through UnitedHealth Group’s database and analytics tools.

JOIN for ME is one of many UnitedHealth Group programs and services that fight diabetes, prediabetes, obesity and related health problems in creative, practical ways to help improve health care quality, expand support and coverage, and help bend the cost curve. Click here for more resources.

About UnitedHealth Group

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) is a diversified health and well-being company dedicated to helping people live healthier lives and making health care work better. With headquarters in Minnetonka, Minn., UnitedHealth Group offers a broad spectrum of products and services through two distinct platforms: UnitedHealthcare, which provides health care coverage and benefits services; and Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled health services. Through its businesses, UnitedHealth Group serves more than 75 million people worldwide. Visit for more information.

iWhitlock EP, Williams SB, Gold R, Smith PR, Shipman SA. Screening and interventions for childhood overweight: a summary of evidence for the US Preventive Services Task Force. Pediatrics. 2005;116(1):e125—144.
iiDietz W. Health consequences of obesity in youth: Childhood predictors of adult disease. Pediatrics 1998;101:518—525.
iiiSwartz MB and Puhl R. Childhood obesity: a societal problem to solve. Obesity Reviews 2003; 4(1):57—71.
ivSepulveda MJ, Tait F, Zimmerman E, Edington D. Impact of childhood obesity on employers. Health Affairs 2010; 29:513-521.  

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