Culture of improved health can impact bottom line

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By Margaret Sabin

CEO, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services

All of the election-year commotion and fog surrounding health care costs, access, and who pays what, has failed to address the central problem of health in the United States: Americans as a whole are becoming profoundly unhealthy, the result of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors that are leading to stroke, heart attack, diabetes and a host of other health crises.

When the November votes are counted and the Affordable Care Act either continues forward or is dismantled, that fact will not have changed.

Without strategically planned and directed guidance by employers and others, ours will continue to be a society in which citizens’ health is plummeting and, not coincidentally, causing health care costs to perpetually escalate.

Many take the position that people will always make their own choices about how much and what to eat, whether to engage in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors like smoking and excessive drinking, and whether or not to exercise. They’ll also claim nothing can be done to steer them to a path of better choices, and therefore, better health.

The latter point is patently not true. Years of anecdotal evidence prove otherwise, including scientific data from a wellness program we launched in Penrose-St. Francis Health Services last year. Almost 900 employees volunteered for a program that extended from 2011 to 2012 and involved health assessments, screenings, biometric measures, wellness coaching, fitness offerings, and a variety of monetary awards for achieving goals (such as weight loss, improved fitness and smoking cessation) as well as being assigned to certain providers who emphasize screenings and preventive medicine.

In just 12 months, 74 percent of the participants being coached achieved their goals, which included losing weight, improving their Body Mass Index (BMI) and seeing a reduction in cholesterol counts. The estimated medical claims savings for the risk reductions in blood pressure, obesity, smoking cessation and cholesterol counts were calculated by a nationally respected company to be just over $111,000.

Our experience served as a pilot program for Centura Health — our parent company and Colorado’s largest hospital and health care network — and it is now being adopted system-wide affecting nearly 14,500 employees at 13 hospitals.

When we launched this program, we had strong reason to believe it would usher in positive change, partly because social-group literature shows that success for an individual is more likely if participating with peers, and also because of solid data from a pilot program we conducted the previous year with residents in the Old North End neighborhood where Penrose Hospital is located. In one year, the 203 people in that program — which included one-on-one coaching, biometric measures, and a series of healthy-living classes — lost a total of 1,291 pounds and 90 inches in waistline, and there was a 1,946-point reduction in mg/hg cholesterol levels.

When the neighborhood program began, 39 percent of participants were deemed “at risk” health-wise. At the end of the study, the figure was 16 percent. The first-year medical and pharmacy savings for the 203 participants was estimated at $140,000 to $165,000.

We, like all companies, have seen a steady rise in health care costs for many years. The hospital-employee population is not immune to the cultural changes that have contributed so hugely to the nation’s health epidemic. We in the health care profession have a special obligation to “walk the talk” if we are to impact the downward spiral of health in America, and, as it is turning out, initiating these health-focused steps for our workforce is helping our bottom line as well.

Our one-year results are admittedly based on a smallish sample and for a short time period, but they should signal a great deal to other companies. They’re an early indication that becoming serious about helping employees become healthier — and maintaining positive lifestyle habits — can begin to build a culture where employees seek and value improved health. And when that happens, it can affect the bottom line in a very positive way.

All companies should be motivated to take steps to frame for their employees various ways of getting healthier and staying healthy. The excuses about how any efforts will fall on deaf ears must stop. Both of our pilot programs have shown that if we provide direct routes for our employees to walk a path to better health, they will, in fact, do so.

Margaret Sabin is president and CEO of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.