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Opinion: Why preventive health is a business investment

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Preventive health is a popular phrase right now, and as someone who works in population health, it is recognition that feels long overdue. In the medical world, preventive health is considered the pinnacle of quality care delivery, but its impact goes far beyond the health care industry. Businesses have a unique role to play in preventive health, and proper investment can lead to better business outcomes and healthier employees, which is a win for everyone.

In the United States, we’ve operated under a health care system that is centered on an approach that is over 100 years old: The primary reason a person sees a doctor is because they are already sick. And while there’s been some movement to a more preventive health approach, a significant shift is needed if we hope to keep our communities healthy and meet workforce demands in the future.

As many business leaders know, health has a strong impact on business performance. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found in 2017 that hundreds of millions of working hours were lost to poor health among those ages 15 to 64, leading them to be absent from work or quit employment altogether. Additionally, McKinsey estimates the cost of ill health was more than $12 trillion in 2017, about 15% of global real gross domestic product.

Looking to the future, the global labor force growth is expected to slow and the demand for highly skilled workers is increasing, according to published workforce reports.

The reality is that we currently have an aging population already taking considerable time away from their work due to ill health. And in the future, there will be fewer workers to fill positions, which means healthy employees will be more important than ever.

In this landscape, there is a clear economic need to prioritize preventive health. What may seem like small things – say, annual visits to a primary care provider or periodic cancer screenings – will have significant impact. McKinsey estimates the global disease burden could be reduced by about 40% by applying known interventions in broader segments of populations and with closer adherence to the most effective tools available. That could equal a 29% drop in cancer deaths and a 39% reduction in cardiovascular deaths.

Health insurance has a big role to play in prioritizing these interventions and tools, but businesses can also make low-cost investments in preventive health that could create substantial, positive change. Some examples include:

  1. Giving employees time for medical appointments. Patients cite work as the primary reason they do not see their doctors. Granting employees specified time beyond sick days to visit their providers can yield exponential benefits to both the employee and employer.
  2. Supporting advance care planning. These plans detail what measures a person does or doesn’t want taken when they are in a medical emergency and can’t speak for themselves. Employee welfare is essential to the health of a company, and providing employees with workshops or avenues to plan ahead benefits their family and also safeguards a company’s medical plan from unneeded expenses.
  3. Incentivizing healthy behaviors. Preventive health starts with the individual, and providing incentives for employees to take care of themselves can lead to positive outcomes. Incentives such as gym membership reimbursement, mental health support or in-office health screenings can improve health outcomes.
  4. 4. Encourage finding a primary care According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 28% of U.S. men and 17% of women don’t have a personal doctor or health care provider. Having a primary care provider can not only benefit patients from a health perspective, but it also can save patients and employers money by avoiding costly visits to urgent care or the emergency room. Providing employees with helpful tools and access to find the best provider for them can make a big difference.

There are many things in life outside of our control, but we’re fortunate in health care to have some issues we can prevent, or reduce the severity of illness, by prioritizing screenings and tests. By businesses prioritizing preventive health for their employees, it can lead to better productivity, healthier employees and overall healthier communities. 

Tracy Mitchell is CoxHealth’s system administrative director of population health. She can be reached at tracy.mitchell@coxhealth.com.

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