Companies that get it

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2008

Fact #1: Fit, healthy persons get that way because of their lifestyle, not their genes.

Fact #2: Healthy employees get more work done, have less absenteeism and help to bring down the cost of an employer's healthcare insurance premiums.

There are a few companies — though not enough of them — that not only understand those facts but have put them together in order to improve their profitability and to bring about a culture of wellness among their employees.

The creeping escalation of healthcare costs is due to chronic diseases that were almost nonexistent at the beginning of the last century. There was heart disease but it was caused by rheumatic fever and syphilis, not by blocked coronary arteries. Persons who suffered a stroke died quickly because it was almost always due to a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. Modern stroke victims linger for years because narrow blood vessels within the brain get blocked; only a part of the brain dies. Diabetes was the result of a process that destroyed insulin-producing cells in the pancreas and we call that type 1. A century later it still exists but it is vastly overshadowed by type 2 diabetes, brought on by obesity and a diet that the human body is simply not designed for.

"It's because we're living longer!" you say. I say that's nonsense. Aging doesn't explain why 40-somethings collapse from heart attacks or why middle-school kids have what we used to call adult-onset diabetes.

Pitney-Bowes, one of the oldest manufacturers of postage meters, recognized that the diseases that cost them the most were diabetes, heart disease, asthma, depression and illnesses that involved the muscles and joints. They made it less expensive for their employees to receive preventive care and to seek medical advice early, and the company reduced copayments on medicines used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. The cost of employee health care for Pitney Bowes is 20 percent less than that of comparable employers.

It should be no surprise that one of the world's largest food producers, General Mills, also gets it. They encourage their employees to attend Weight Watchers meetings and to use the fitness centers, both on the corporation's property. The company cafeteria offers a sensible, nutritious, low-calorie menu and subsidizes the salad bar.

This approach works as well for the smallest companies, which are at much higher risk if only one or two employees develop expensive complications of avoidable disease.

What works for America's largest companies and the smallest will also work for its families. Physical activity doesn't require a fancy fitness center when a comfortable pair of shoes will help to walk off the pounds. Salads are cheap; it's the high-fat dressing that adds cost and calories. Health screening tests don't have to be done in a doctor's office when there are church groups and other organizations that will offer blood pressure readings and blood sugar testing at little or no charge.

All this makes a difference because no matter how we pay for health care, we can't afford diseases that last for decades and that are affecting ever-younger persons.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.