Anybody who has even a passing interest in health and wellness knows the sobering fact that a large number of medical problems that plague society today are the result of unhealthy living habits. Conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which are reaching epidemic proportions, are directly linked to poor eating and inactivity. Official statistics show that around 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. We live on diets of junk food, and the vast majority of us don’t meet minimum recommendations for weekly exercise (disappointingly under 25 percent do according to this Time article). Among physicians sadly, the very people who should most be setting examples for healthy lifestyles, the statistics are hardly any better — with around 65 percent overweight or obese.
Over the last year, in addition to my hospital work, I’ve also practiced preventive medicine and wellness in an outpatient setting and got to meet hundreds of people from all walks of life and occupations. Many of them work for large companies that are actively promoting health and well-being among employees. Hearing stories about how their organizations have numerous programs to encourage healthy eating and regular activity (including even having friendly competitions among employees), has got me thinking: Why aren’t health care organizations doing the same thing en masse? Surely if there was one industry that should be leading this charge, it should be health care?
I have worked in every type of hospital over the last several years — big academic centers in major metropolitan areas, to tiny community outposts in the middle of nowhere. Beyond just straightforward things like the odd cafeteria promotion, administrative email, or “walk-a-thon,” I’ve seen very little. Perhaps I’ve just worked in the wrong places, but it seems like we are way behind in this area. That’s a terrible shame. Hospitals and clinics may be hectic places, facing a universal financial squeeze — but there’s tremendous room for improvement to promote physical wellbeing among all employees — doctors, nurses, and everyone else. For any company, investing in this has been shown to yield a significant long-term return on investment (ROI). Especially at a time when discussion about physician burnout and job dissatisfaction is so prevalent, this seems like an obvious place to start (people also underestimate the link between physical and mental health).
I know something that would transform my working life and make my days so much more productive (and fun), would be to have a nice gym at work. I want nothing more than an hour or so during the day to get away — have a workout, shower — and come straight back to work feeling refreshed with an energy boost. Maybe even have a really quick healthy lunch afterward in an attached cafeteria! Of course, arrangements could be made for someone to cover in the event of any emergent situation that happened in that period — but being able to do this would transform my work day. I would look forward to this hour, it would help me release some of the tension that comes with working at the frontlines, and I’d gladly stay an hour or two later in the day (in fact I probably wouldn’t need to, because I think the physical and mental clarity benefits, would make me more efficient). It would also mean that I wouldn’t need to go to the gym before or after work. That’s just my wish. For other people, perhaps a swimming pool, a walking area, spin class, or a meditation or yoga room may work. Before, during, or after work. It may not change the realities of frontline medicine, the challenges we face as medical practitioners, or make our suboptimal clunky electronic medical records any better — but it sure as hell would encourage us to be healthier.
So come on health care organizations in America, if we are going to all be employees in this new world of corporate medicine — take care of us and promote our wellness like so many other big companies do.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author, and an independent health care experience and communication consultant. He is co-founder, DocsDox.
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