The Ohio State University’s Mission to Become the Healthiest in the World

Bernadette Melnyk shares her modest goal for The Ohio State University

In 2017, the National Academy of Medicine launched the Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being—a national initiative to raise awareness about the importance of clinicians’ well-being and the prevalence of increasing depression, compassion fatigue, and suicide among healthcare providers. At that point, The Ohio State University (OSU) was already well ahead of the wellness curve.

This wellness effort is spearheaded by Bernadette Melnyk, vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, and dean of the college of nursing. In fact, in 2011, Melnyk became the first university official in the United States with the title of chief wellness officer (CWO).

Bernadette Melnyk, Ohio State University

Melnyk had been studying corporate wellness in her previous position as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University. During that time, she had come to the conclusion that universities needed to place more emphasis on wellness by entrusting such responsibilities with a CWO. At Ohio State, through discussions with the university’s president and provost regarding the ROI associated with a CWO position, the new role was created to improve population health and well-being for faculty, staff, and students.

“When I arrived, there were already many good wellness-related projects and initiatives in place,” Melnyk says. “What we needed was a comprehensive team vision and alignment of all the health and wellness efforts that were going on across the entire campus.”

She immediately created the One University Health and Wellness Council, which brings together leaders from every entity involved in well-being efforts. In addition to health groups and HR, the council includes representatives from vice presidents and deans, faculty, university staff, marketing and communications, facilities, and graduate and undergraduate students. It gained tremendous positive momentum quickly as the participants created a holistic and comprehensive view of all their activities, developed a vision, mission, and strategic plan, a scorecard to monitor key outcomes, and shared their enthusiasm for working toward common goals.

The overarching goal is to make OSU the healthiest university in the world and to create a culture that makes healthy behaviors the norm. Melnyk and the council intend to accomplish this by leveraging evidence-based interventions, developing and coordinating clear and supportive communication, and enhancing grassroots efforts. They also are committed to sharing best practices with other universities across the country.

“Reaching our goals requires a multicomponent strategy that stretches from top leadership to the grassroots level,” Melnyk says. “Perhaps the most important piece is creating a culture that supports healthy behaviors that people usually have trouble sustaining on their own.”

Wellness initiatives have successfully been implemented at nearly every level. Individuals can work with health coaches who offer advice on healthy eating, physical activity, and stress reduction. Staff and faculty social networks are targeted with events like the annual Family Wellness Expo. In the workplace, Melnyk’s team coordinates the Buckeye Wellness Innovator program—faculty and staff volunteers who coordinate wellness activity programming campus-wide. At the administrative level, Melnyk and the council focus on implementing and evaluating the strategic plan, including initiatives such as tobacco-free and flexible work policies.

Specific physical activity programming is a key component of Melnyk’s strategy. There are many intramural and college-to-college competitions—everything from “Amazing Races” to dodgeball tournaments. Incentives for consistent engagement in wellness activities are offered, as well.

Bernadette Melnyk participates in the Nursing ROTC Bootcamp at Ohio Stadium. Jay LaPrete

OSU was the first university-wide partner with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Million Hearts initiative. The program’s goal is to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2022. Through related screenings and education programming, Melnyk says OSU’s overall cardiovascular health improved nearly 7 percent in four years.

Physical wellness isn’t the only focus. Initiatives also address emotional, financial, intellectual, career, social, creative, environmental, and spiritual health and well-being. Advisors from the business school are available to faculty and staff for financial consulting. A new campaign, Just Breathe, has just been launched for emotional wellness, and provides a website with resources on mindfulness, imagery, and stress reduction.

“There have been upticks in stress levels on campuses across the country,” Melnyk points out. “Because we emphasize evidence-based quality improvement, when we see indicators like that, we intensify our efforts to address them.”

This comprehensive focus has produced positive results for OSU’s bottom line. The university has achieved a negative healthcare spend when most organizations are experiencing more than a 4 percent increase. That resulted in more than $15 million in savings on health and wellness spending on faculty and staff. According to Melnyk, OSU’s average ROI on each dollar invested in wellness is $3.65, near the top of the average returns reported by several national studies.

Melnyk also established the National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities (NCBHAC) with fifteen other universities. Its mission is to implement comprehensive approaches to well-being for faculty, staff, and students that will improve the population health of the thirty-three million people who live and work in US academic institutions. More than three hundred leaders and ninety-three universities attended NCBHAC’s first conference.

“The healthcare system in this country remains a  sick-care system that only treats people after problems—many of them preventable—can’t be ignored,” Melnyk says. “At OSU, I want to create a culture and environment that changes that, where healthy lifestyles and behaviors are so supported that lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating, smoking, and stress aren’t the underlying causes of death and disease anymore.”