I had the opportunity last week to participate in a conference sponsored by the American Cancer Society and others that brought together companies to talk about changing the course of cancer through innovative corporate programs and policies.
The take home message for me was that if we are going to solve the health care crisis in this country, we are going to have to learn about the unique and successful corporate health focused initiatives that are happening all around us.
I have given a lot of thought to our health care system (or should I say non-system) over the years. I came to the conclusion years ago that there are always better ways to do things if only we were able to sift the wheat from the chaff, and move the best ideas forward. There are examples out there, but all too frequently they don’t get much notice.
This conference pointed out that corporate America has not been standing still when it comes to trying to find solutions to improving the health of our country while holding down the incessant spiral of health care costs.
There were numerous examples of program successes presented at the meeting.
A representative from Safeway highlighted their company’s efforts to rein in health care expenses while improving the health of their employees. That plan has received a lot of attention recently, including a prominent article in a recent Wall Street Journal. They have incorporated financial incentives into a workplace solution that helps people meet their goals for their own health and has resulted in significant improvements in several measures of health, such as a decline in smoking rates. They have held health care expenses in line, while improving the health of their employees.
Another company that has taken the proverbial “bull by the horns” is Caterpillar, where they have instituted a “pay for quality” initiative for colorectal cancer screening in their major manufacturing location of Peoria, Illinois. They negotiated rates for colonoscopy with the local gastroenterologists and hospitals, and worked with them to develop quality measures for colorectal cancer screening. The program has been successful at reducing costs and improving quality, a goal that many seek nationwide.
The reality is that in Peoria, Caterpillar has enough employees who need colonoscopy to make a “market solution” work. The same would probably not be true elsewhere for many other companies when it comes to negotiating a fixed fee for the procedure, but the bottom line for me is that when it comes to quality medical care there is no reason their same “quality indicator” process for colonosocopy should not be in place voluntarily nationwide.
Then there was what I would call the “stunner moment” when the medical director from Caterpillar mentioned that the food service for the company has been placed under the direction of the medical department, not a more traditional food service organization. Now, that may not get you very excited—and may make you wonder what kind of a life I lead—but in my book that is a real innovation.
The end result is the availability of healthier food choices, and a tiered cost structure both in the cafeteria and the vending machines that moves people to make those healthier choices. And, I understand the economics have worked out as well.
There were a number of other presentations, but I think you get the point. Solving the health care crisis is not going to be done in one sweeping motion. We need to be innovative, creative, and supportive. We need to put our minds together and figure out ways to do this better.
Our large companies may in fact have some of the answers. Where paying health insurance premiums was their prime interest a number of years ago, they are now realizing that they have to pay creative attention to health care and lifestyle solutions since many of them are footing rapidly escalating costs in providing insurance for their workers.
Simply paying the insurance premiums no longer works, according to some of the people I spoke with at the conference. However, to be fair, there are others who noted that their corporate managements are still not fully on board. Getting traction with health care initiatives within a company bureaucracy can be a daunting task, especially when the effort is not tied directly to the core mission of the company and adding dollars to the bottom line.
Someone pointed out during the meeting that when you think about it, many of us spend 40 hours or more at our work every week. In a 168 hour week, when we are supposed to spend 8 hours a night sleeping, that means a good portion of our waking hours are spent somewhere other than in our homes with our families.
That means that there is enormous potential for our workplaces to be our “health places” and influence our health behavior. Not that health is the primary focus of a company. It’s their product or their service that is obviously paramount to their mission. But it is by creating a “culture of health” and helping to subtly direct our healthy choices and our healthy behaviors that our companies can really make a difference. And, as noted by several participants, when senior management sends a healthy message and participates in healthy behaviors it has a huge impact on the workforce.
Think about it for a moment: how many meetings do you go to where your company serves lunch or a snack? How many times do they make healthy choices available, or even feature a healthy choice? How many times do you see the cookies and the chips as opposed to the apples and the popcorn?
Even I had to take a second look at the bag of “healthy chips” served as a snack at one of our American Cancer Society meetings the other day. A quick calculation told me that innocent bag of “healthy chips” had close to 300 calories. I opted for the smaller bag of pretzels which checked in closer to 100. It’s those small choices that add up to big differences over time.
Temptation is all around us. If we thought about it, we should be working to make certain that healthy choices should be all around us instead. It wouldn’t take much of an effort for our pre-meeting breakfasts to have low or non-fat milk, non-sugared cereals and low fat/low calorie yogurt instead of bacon eggs and potatoes.
So here is a “tip of the hat” to those companies that are trying to do something to improve the health of their employees, and maybe giving us some clues as to how we can improve the health of America as well. Your efforts are not going unnoticed.
We are one of the greatest innovative societies ever known, and our companies are very much a part of that culture. Putting their corporate minds to work improving our health is not such a far-fetched idea when you think about it.
Sharing those ideas, as we did last week in Chicago, is simply a first step. That’s what we need to do on a larger scale if we are going to make progress in moving from a culture of illness in this country to a true culture of health.
Innovations like these are a vital part of moving us down the path to getting our arms around the problems we face today if we are to develop the solutions we need for tomorrow.