Public health in CSR or open source health management

The idea of sharing the methodologies and technologies of employee health management programs with public health efforts outside of companies hit me as I wrote corporate wellness: beyond the corporation? I want to call it Open Source Health Management (not to be confused with open source health care software). Since then, I’ve tried to find out if this really is a “revolutionary possibility” or if it’s already happening somewhere.

The first thing I discovered is that this is a complex subject to search for! As with any internet search, the words you use in the search, the search engine and even the ordering of the words can affect the quality of what you find. In my not-so thorough search so far, I haven’t found much. If you search for “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) and “public health,” you mostly get references to articles that refer to a company’s responsibility to not damage public health. For instance, you’ll find an article that talks about the Woburn, MA case where leukemia in children was linked to contaminated municipal wells [PDF]. I think it’s obvious that companies should not be a danger or detriment to the health of the communities in which they operate. The question is, should they take part in the proactive health of that community?

The Center for Corporate Citizenship (another term for CSR, further confounding research) includes in its definition of corporate citizenship the statement that companies should be participating voluntarily to help solve social problems (such as education, health, ….). Right! As far as I can tell so far, it’s not happening.

Although many companies are starting to go so far as hosting clinics for their employees, there doesn’t seem to be any effort to expand the pro-active, lightweight and very effective methods (dare I say, naturopathic?) of employee health management beyond employee populations. The key factor in motivating companies to participate in CSR-related efforts is that they get something back: brand recognition, profit, productivity or some other identifiable return. The increase in the “greening” of corporations is currently teetering between responsibility to not damage the environment (think of giant smoke stacks) to being pro-active in achieving a healthier planet (utilizing renewable materials and energy, for instance). Going for the latter, companies advertise and market their greenness, and evidence is showing that there’s value in doing so.

Now, we have two more questions: 1) would corporations gain in some way by contributing knowledge, effort and technology to improving community health and 2) how would they do it?

It would take some rigor to answer both questions, but at this point, I think it would be worth a look. However, I’m not encouraged by what I’ve found so far. The National Business Group on Health defines itself as “the national voice of large employers dedicated to finding innovative and forward-thinking solutions to the nation’s most important health care issues.” Reading on the site, it appears the main point of this group is to share methods between companies and to serve as a voice in our nation’s capital, including working to “Counter Employer Coverage Mandates.”

The Partnership for Prevention (dig that name) sounds more promising. The group’s goal is to “seek to increase investment in preventing disease and promoting health and to make prevention a national priority.” Unfortunately, this again looks mostly like an organization focussed on influencing political policy:

Working closely with the Congressional Prevention Caucus, a bipartisan caucus formed in 1998, Partnership raises the level of knowledge in Congress about prevention and identifies strategies that can lead to a healthier nation.

Is this the way real changes are going to happen, by informing Congress? I do think that getting prevention in the minds of policy makers and into the agenda is a good thing to do. But where’s the action? Am I asking too much?

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