Posts Tagged ‘public health’

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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As I’ve delved into the world of corporate wellness, I’ve found that there a lot of words for it. So far, I’ve discovered:

And the list, no doubt, goes on.

Occupational health is probably the original place that the move towards corporate wellness started. As defined, occupational health focuses on workplace safety and therefore reducing and preventing anything that might be detrimental to the health of each employee. Over years, many companies have been able to build safety into corporate culture, therefore making it automatic. At my work, people call you out if you even motion to stand on a chair. My dad, who batches concrete, has to wear steel-toed boots even though he spends all day behind a computer. Many employees might whine about such measures being overbearing, but no one wins when an employee gets hurt at work: the worker loses income, the employer loses productivity and gains health cost, and the co-workers have to pick up the slack. The result of safety efforts, training and awareness campaigns is that employees pro-actively ensure workplace safety as a part of their job. I don’t think you could find a better measure of success than that.

As many companies experienced sterling safety records, they wondered what else they could do. The next logical step was to go beyond removing detriments to health and to help each employee achieve optimum health. Although a significant challenge, the quantifiable and uncountable benefits for the employee and the employer are immense. In addition, many factors are pushing employers in this direction. Although I’d like to believe that everyone wants to nourish their inner athlete, I know that the universal motivator for change is increasing: money. As health care costs rise at an accelerating pace, many companies are seeing their related expenditures rise into the billion$ and as a result, they are pushing those costs onto their employees. Besides that, the employer always loses when an employee misses work or cannot work at full speed due to illness. From their perspective, a healthy employee means a productive employee that brings their A-game to work on a consistent basis.

In the last decade or so, many companies have been able to create the culture of prevention that I’ve been talking about. However, we’re slow to see these effects spill into society as a whole. As companies help employees identify health risk factors, introduce healthy eating habits and provide better options in work cafes, and in some cases, provide facilities for fitness and physical activity, our health care dilemma only increases. Obesity, diabetes and cancer are marching strongly forward. Is it time that workplace wellness programs set bigger goals? Is this an avenue that the general health care community can use to achieve public health goals? Should public health encroach into corporate social responsibility?

This is a revolutionary possibility. Corporations have demonstrated that with a naturopathic approach to corporate wellness, employees can take charge and improve their personal health. The question now is, how can the methodologies and technologies developed by corporations to create a successful culture of prevention be applied to a wider community?

In my mind, naturopathic medicine is one answer, at least on a smaller scale. By definition, naturopathic doctors work closely with each patient to identify the roadblocks to their ideal health, to correct the root cause of those roadblocks by tapping into the patient’s innate ability to heal, and to move into a state of prevention and education about healthy living. Corporate wellness programs seek to do exactly the same thing.

In the end, maybe there’s a partnership here that can happen. While naturopaths can provide the knowledge and techniques to make preventive, holistic health the norm, the corporations can provide expertise and information technology to apply it on a bigger scale. Although corporations might see their successful wellness programs as strategic advantages to attracting the best and brightest, they could also realize that these programs could be applied to become a transformative force and asset to the health of the communities in which they operate. Although there might exist a number of preconceptions on both sides of this partnership, I think a lot could be learned with open discussion and debate.