By DENIS WILSON, a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Two recently published studies reaffirm the costly burden of obesity on the U.S. health care system. In a May 7 study, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. Meanwhile, in January the Journal of Health Economics reported that obese men and women account for $190 billion a year in additional medical spending.
Though these studies show the tremendous cost of obesity, they also reveal the savings that could occur if trends are reversed. As the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported, if obesity were to just remain at 2010 levels, the combined savings in medical expenditures over the next 20 years would be $549.5 billion.
LuAnn Heinen, vice president at the National Business Group on Health,
said that employers have a stake in the "tsunami of costs" that obesity presents.
"Even though the trend has flattened, the costs associated are tremendous," Heinen said. "The number of people being treated for obesity and obesity-related health problems is higher than ever."
Since it's now well understood how obesity contributes to health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and sleep apnea, the need to obesity is greater than ever.
"If we could reverse the obesity trends, there is a huge opportunity for savings. But there is not a silver bullet," Heinen said.
May 7-9, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention held the Weight of the Nation conference in Washington, D.C., delivering the message that obesity needs attention from schools, community programs and employers.
Dr. Russell Robbins, a principal and senior clinical consultant for Mercer's health and benefits business is plenty familiar with the obesity epidemic. "These types of reports about the obesity problem that we're facing as a country are always alarming," Robbins said, "especially considering all the downstream ramifications from that as well. Whether it's diabetes, muscular-skeletal problems or the extra strain on your heart -- it really is a big problem."
Robbins pointed to several types of initiatives that employers have taken up to combat workforce obesity:
"We're looking at what kinds of programs an employer can put in place for earlier identification and education of their employees about obesity, and the other potential problems and complications that can arise from it."
Robbins said that simple things like educational programs, access to gym memberships and walking trails at work, can have a positive impact. Recognizing that some people may progress on to diabetes and other medical conditions, and making sure they are educated on how to live with these conditions and become more proactive with their health also has an impact, he said.
Robbins said that adoption of wellness programs has risen in the last five years or so, and with demonstrated effectiveness.
"There are lots of studies that have been published over the years showing the efficacy of these types of programs," He said. One of the challenges, Robbins said, is that these are more long-term types of solutions.
"If you have a workforce that has a lot of turnover or volatility," said Robbins, "you're not necessarily going to see the benefits of putting these programs in place. However, what you are doing is laying the groundwork for those individuals to start to understand what they need to do to take more action over their lives."
May 15, 2012
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