Healthy Workforce = Healthy Economy

This week I came across a very thought-provoking report recently released by the Vitality Institute that provides recommendations on the promotion of health and prevention of chronic disease for working-age Americans.  There is a lot of insightful detail (I highly recommend having an extended peek), but in sum, the Commission developed evidence empirically linking the health of the US’ workforce to the long-term competitiveness of the US economy – the proposition: unhealthy workforce = unhealthy economy.  Said another way, lower worker productivity and soaring US healthcare costs ($2.7T or 17.7% of US GDP in 2011 – the below graphic provides perspective on magnitude) impede innovation and reduce overall investment in education and R&D.

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Wow – a big statement.  Let’s quickly boil it down.  It is pretty straightforward that employers have a lot to gain directly from having a healthy workforce – healthy people perform at a higher level.  Makes sense.  Expanding beyond that, the “working years” are said to be the most formidable time to make a positive impact on the health of an individual and a population.  This puts employers in a critical and powerful position as macro health change-agents.  By focusing on prevention and incentivizing healthy behaviors, employers can help to reduce the incidence of chronic disease (est. up to 80%) and promote a “culture of health” in the US specifically.   Sure, there are many other factors and interdependencies (like all things healthcare, it’s complicated), but in simple terms, the Commission estimates that US corporations could save more than $300B annually in the next decade (or 7% of GDP) on healthcare spend with a collective shift towards “culture of health” advocacy and action.  If accurate, this would clearly be positive on many fronts and bring the US more in line with its peer nations on % of GDP spend.

So how does a company take action?  The good news is that immediate options do exist and there is a crop of emerging digital health companies (eg Castlight Health) that focus on population health management using evidence-based methods, many specifically catered to corporations, that are eager to help provide a solution.   Many “model” US corporations are already extending investment in the health of their employees and adopting these technologies.

That said, average corporate spend in health promotion and prevention programs is still quite low – an estimated 3% of annual corporate healthcare spend.  Why?  The simple reason is cost and also returns are arguably hard to quantify / justify.  In order to help address this issue and incentivize corporations to adjust their healthcare spend mix, the Commission has a novel recommendation:

Make Health Measurable and Report It

The idea is to call corporations to start reporting on the health metrics (eg average Body Mass Index) of their workforce population – the same way as, say, financial results and sustainability (CSR) data points.  The hypothesis is that this transparency would increase accountability – healthy companies = profitable companies – and increase corporate focus on and further investment in population health management.

A radical thought…or is it???

Certainly the ownness lies beyond just one party, but I predict there are a lot of big data companies that would be eager to lend companies a hand…

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