Prevention is the key to both better health and lower healthcare costs over the long haul. This is where the nation — and each of us as individuals — needs to put energy and resources. In the long run, it is more important than addressing the high cost of new technologies and drugs or their inappropriate overuse.
Today, the U.S. basically has a medical care system rather than a health care system: We focus on treating illness when it occurs but not on preventing it in advance.
According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, there are about 465,000 preventable deaths per year in the U.S. from smoking, 395,000 from high blood pressure, 216,000 from obesity, 191,000 from inactivity, 190,000 from high blood sugar, and 113,000 from high cholesterol.
These are mostly due to our lifestyles. One-third of Americans are overweight, another third are obese, and 20% smoke. We eat too much packaged and prepared food rather than nutritious foods, and we do not exercise. Even children’s physical activity now declines with age, from about three hours per day at age nine to less than an hour by age 15.
This helps explain why the U.S. ranks 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for female mortality, 42nd for male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy — but is first for per capita spending on health care. Clearly, there is something terribly wrong with this picture. And unless we get serious about prevention, there will be a diabetes epidemic and more heart disease, cancer, arthritis and other chronic illnesses. Life spans will shorten rather than lengthen, and the costs will be enormous.
I firmly believe that each of us must each take responsibility for our own preventive health care. That said, other players in society should assist us in the following ways:
Our government should insist that restaurants post calorie counts and fat content and schools restrict the availability of sodas and other non-nutritious foods in cafeterias. In addition, it can provide a food pyramid — recommended diets or eating plans — that is not influenced by vested interests.
Our employers should provide wellness programs like Safeway’s, which encourages staff to utilize smoking-cessation, weight-reduction, stress-management, and nutrition counseling at no charge. Those who participate are given a reduction (incentive) of their portion of the health care premium. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing the program, CEO Steven A. Burd reported that over four years Safeway’s per capita health-care costs (including both the company’s and employees’ portions) did not rise while those for most American companies had increased 38%. In addition, the company had less absenteeism and higher worker productivity.
Insurance plans should offer subscribers lower premiums for not smoking, for being at reasonable weight, and for exercising.
Physicians, especially primary care physicians, should spend the time necessary to provide good preventive medicine, which includes counseling, screening tests (high blood pressure, weight , cholesterol, cancer), and immunizations.
Prevention is valuable at any age. At the Erickson Retirement Communities, residents can opt for a program that includes health-promotion classes for all (similar to Safeway’s) and care coordination for those who do develop a chronic illness. The physicians limit themselves to about 400 patients (compared to about 1,300 to 1,500 for most primary care physicians) and offer same same-day visits and as much time as needed per visit. They use an electronic medical record system, nurses to assist with care coordination, visits to each hospitalized patient, and an automatic office visit within 72 hours of a hospital discharge.
The results are striking: fewer hospitalizations, shorter lengths of stay for those who are hospitalized, and a drop in the “bounce rate” (i.e., unplanned readmissions to the hospital in the 30 days after discharge) from the national Medicare average of (an outrageous) 24% to less than 10%. In other words, better health, better care and reduced costs.
In summary, a combination of nudges and incentives can assist us in achieving our responsibilities for health promotion and disease prevention — responsibilities commensurate with the new right of all Americans to have insurance.
This would be a start toward a true health care system and away from a medical care system. What else do you think needs to be done?
Stephen C. Schimpff is a retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and is the author of The Future of Medicine — Megatrends in Healthcare. He blogs at Medical Megatrends and the Future of Medicine.
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