Outlier Wellness

Outlier Wellness

“Only a handful of outlier health problems are preventable in any real sense,” writes Dave Chase in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “about seven percent, according to my colleague, Al Lewis.”

 

My last post was about the cost of outliers, how just a small percentage of patients account for a huge percentage of overall healthcare spending in the United States. We know that there are a few unlucky individuals whose healthcare is incredbily costly, yet they are not the first people we think of when we think about excessive healthcare spending in the United States. As a result, we fail to truly understand the weaknesses of our healthcare system and how our healthcare dollars are actually being spent. We introduce programs that don’t actually address the real problems in escalating healthcare costs.

 

This is where the ideas about and problems with wellness programs begin. Chase continues, “While the notion of workplace wellness and prevention was a noble idea, we now know that company after company is spending a huge amount of plan dollars and resources trying to do something that can’t be done.”

 

The idea of workplace wellness programs is to encourage healthy living habits and lifestyles of employees. Since our employers are usually paying a lot for our healthcare coverage and sometimes directly for our healthcare, anything employers can do that makes employees more healthy, outside of the healthcare space, will reduce the healthcare costs and needs of employees, generating a return on investment in the long run.

 

Unfortunately, the people who cost the most, who really drive incredibly high healthcare spending in the United States, don’t suffer from conditions that can be addressed through workplace wellness programs. Your plan to encourage workers to walk more, to buy foam rollers for the office, and to reward employees who count calories is not going to prevent an employee from being diagnosed with a congenital heart arrhythmia, won’t stop a rare blood disorder, and isn’t going to prevent any other unpredictable obscure disease from costing thousands or millions of dollars for your health plan.

 

What is worse, wellness programs usually just encourage those who are already living healthy lifestyles to flaunt how healthy their lifestyle already is. You likely won’t reach or encourage the employee who has a second job someplace else, the single mom with two kids who is justĀ  trying to get dinner on the plate each night, or the employee who has been discouraged and dejected their whole life. An Apple Watch or an iPad isn’t going to solve the problem of a long commute, an unsafe neighborhood, or past trauma. We spend a lot of money on wellness plans that don’t address the real upstream social determinants of health for many employees, and can’t possibly address the health problems of the most expensive outliers in our healthcare system. The idea of workplace wellness programs has the right spirit, but the truth is these interventions need to happen at a much larger level than what the employer can really address.
Constructive Thoughts on Wellness

Constructive Thoughts on Wellness

There is an argument in the world of public health that the American medical system is too focused on solving problems rather than preventing problems. This argument that is presented in Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland, expressed by Dr. Alex Cahana, “The U.S. medical system is good at fighting disease, … and awful at leading people to wellness.”

 

The difference between fighting disease and leading people to wellness has to do with where you step in to help with people’s health. Our country generally focuses on providing medical care and attention after someone has gotten sick. We ask doctors, nurses, and medical professionals to correct a huge range of problems, many of which stem from bad habits, unhealthy environmental factors, and conditions that are generally beyond the control of an individual, and not open to medical interventions. Attacking the problem once it has already developed, once a set of factors have set in that promote the health problem, makes any real changes expensive and difficult.

 

Wellness requires that we think about medical care, costs, and health further upstream, before anyone ever gets sick. Consider the idea of wellness in the context of car maintenance (I know, I know, I just wrote about the problems with comparing ourselves to cars, but this will be helpful).

 

If you regularly change your oil, rotate your tires, and drive as if your grandma was in the car with you, then your vehicle is going to operate more smoothly with fewer major costs (in general) throughout its entire life. You are making small interventions along the way to make sure your car is operating optimally. The costs of changing your oil and putting in the necessary effort to keep it working well are not trivial, but we know that those costs are less than what we might face otherwise.

 

Failing to maintain our vehicle could lead to a catastrophic engine failure. Driving our car like a teenager that just downed two Redbulls is going to put a lot of strain on the vehicle, wearing out our tires and breaks much faster. When things wear our quicker, when unexpected failures occur, we suddenly have to pay a lot more money to keep the car going.

 

Our bodies are similar, and whether it is our national Medicaid or Medicare systems, or our private health insurance systems, the cost we pay for healthcare is interconnected with where we step in to try to make people healthy. Paying for interventions downstream, once we already have health problems is expensive. It is equivalent waiting until our human check engine lights turn on before we consider doing anything to help our health. The solution that many medical professionals and many public health researchers encourage is moving upstream from the actual health problems that develop to focus on interventions before anyone develops terrible disease. The idea is to focus on wellness first, and hope we don’t have to pay for as much medical care for the prohibitively expensive diseases down the road. Rather than focusing all our effort on solving disease, we can redirect some of the money and effort into improving our environments, finding new ways to help people adopt healthy lifestyles, and finding more ways to connect and help us share in wellness as a community.