Health and wellness: We need to broaden our perspective

How do we keep the well people well while managing the devil out of the 1%?

This is one of our most complex and challenging questions, and there is no simple answer — but we needn’t look far to see that progress is being made.

Judging from the unprecedented groundswell of interest in health and wellness — and the corresponding emergence of a “wellbeing economy” — I think it’s fair to say that our entire society has finally gotten the message.

The wellbeing economy takes into account the health, social, and economic factors that affect the wellbeing of individuals, countries, and the world we live in.

If you doubt that the wellbeing economy is a reality, consider what is happening all around us:

In the public sector. Spurred by health and wellness policies and initiatives at the federal level (e.g., Healthy People 2020, Medicare coverage for preventive services), health and wellness strategic plans are now springing up in many states (e.g., Michigan, Ohio, Florida).

In health plans. Recognizing that keeping people healthier and delaying the onset of complications from chronic illnesses saves acute care dollars, most health plans are investing heavily in wellness, screening and prevention programs and services.

In corporations. Wellness programs have become a standard workplace benefit, with most mid-sized and large corporations investing in health improvement programs for their employees.

In fact, a 2010 employer survey found that U.S. employers spend nearly 2% of their health budgets on wellness (excluding costs associated with employee incentives, on-site health centers, and human resources staff dedicated to wellness programs).

Examples abound, but one that comes to mind is the Cerner Corporation where, on a recent visit, I learned that in addition to “wellness savings accounts” enabling employees to purchase healthy things like gym memberships and bike helmets, the company cafeteria makes clever use of green lights for healthy choices (e.g., salad) and red lights for unhealthy choices (e.g., sweets).

In academia. As dean of a school, I can’t help but notice the growth in undergraduate and graduate level degree programs now being offered in wellness and health promotion management.

In technology. A broad array of wellbeing “apps” are now available for our wireless phones to help us manage stress and track everything from our weight to daily physical activity (e.g., steps per day) to our progress with smoking cessation.

In the retail industry. Your local pharmacy is likely to offer wellness services such as flu vaccinations; convenient care clinics in many big box stores, for example Walmart and Target, are beginning to offer screenings, preventive services and healthy living programs; even supermarkets have jumped on the wellness wagon by stocking and advertising healthier foods.

In research and development. Advances in genetic testing are making it possible to intervene before health deteriorates. Today, a buccal smear can be used to predict the predisposition for obesity in a child or adolescent, and the child can be referred for obesity counseling at school.

The most exciting part is that the wellbeing economy is going global — from World Health Organization health promotion programs to the Canadian government’s recent report of a general uptick in healthier food purchasing and consumption among parents and senior citizens.

The point is that health and wellness go far beyond the corporate wellness program model — and we need to broaden our perspective.

I predict that by 2016 the wellbeing economy will be well entrenched and in full swing.

David B. Nash is founding dean, Jefferson School of Population Health, Thomas Jefferson University and blogs at Nash on Health Policy and Focus on Health Policy.

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