By Angela L. Walker Franklin
Whether you agree with or abhor health care reform, one stark reality that’s often lost in the debate is one of the key elements in tackling the soaring costs of health care in our country: the partnership between the health care system and individuals in obtaining preventive care and promoting and practicing healthier lifestyles.
We know that the high cost of health insurance discourages many Americans from purchasing needed coverage, while others are outright denied. That led to provisions of federal health care reform that mandate coverage, expand safety net programs and guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing coverage. Insurance premiums, however, are only a symptom of the high costs of health care.
A big driver of rising insurance rates is chronic disease. Of every $4 spent on health care, $3 pays for treating chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes — conditions that can be reduced, ended or avoided with preventive care and individuals taking responsibility for their health.
In that regard, focusing primarily on health insurance rates is like a physician treating just a patient’s symptoms rather than the patient’s overall health and underlying conditions.
We need a more holistic approach to tackling health care costs and improving our health outcomes. In the way clinical graduates of Des Moines University are trained to apply whole-body care to their patients, we need to address all aspects of our health. That ranges from ensured access to annual physicals and screenings to education and incentives that encourage healthy diets and lifestyles.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), more than 60 percent of Iowans are overweight or obese. Obesity-related problems cost Iowans an estimated $783 million annually.
Rising obesity rates feed the incidence of diabetes, too. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the number of Iowans with diabetes has grown by 25 percent in the last five years alone. IDPH reports that almost 42 percent of adult Iowans have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Of the latter category, 75 percent go undiagnosed, missing the chance to make lifestyle changes and apply medical interventions that will only become more expensive as the disease worsens.
The American Cancer Society estimates that tobacco use will cause 173,200 of the estimated 577,190 cancer deaths expected to occur nationwide in 2012. Poor nutrition will account for a third of all total cancer patients.
These and other lifestyle factors represent the underlying disease that needs to be treated as we look to cure rising costs.
We have the power to change the declining state of our collective and individual health. The campaign to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016, championed by Gov. Terry Branstad, is a great start. Even more critical is supporting a work force of health care professionals oriented to providing accessible preventive care.
We shouldn’t be afraid to get creative, either. For example, DMU’s Wellness Pays program provides financial incentives to employees who get preventive health care, exercise, volunteer in the community and pursue other forms of good physical, mental and emotional health. In the past year, more than half of our PWP participants improved their overall wellness score.
With solid prevention and education efforts in our communities and state, Iowa could achieve a significant reduction in ongoing health care costs.
l Angela L. Walker Franklin is president/CEO of Des Moines University, a private medical/health sciences institution. Comments: president.franklin.@dmu.edu