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Small Changes Can Improve Health

Even small changes in personal behaviour can make big differences in health and employers are increasingly well-positioned to play a vital part. In turn, employers will benefit from lower health benefit costs and improved productivity. That was a conclusion from a panel discussion hosted by the Economic Club of Canada. ‘Quantifying the Costs of an Unhealthy Workforce’ saw representatives for employers, the Ontario government, and health technology providers agree that preventative health measures can and should do more to reduce healthcare costs, and the workplace is an important environment for motivating individual action. The economic implications are staggering, said Susanne Cookson, president of BestLifeRewarded Innovations. Just over half of healthcare costs today, or $122 billion, are due to lost productivity. Of that, $69 billion can be traced back to five modifiable health risk factors: tobacco smoking, excess weight, physical inactivity, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and use of alcohol. Multiple research studies demonstrate that even small reductions in these behaviours can prevent chronic diseases and significantly reduce costs. Heather Chalmers, vice-president and general manager of GE Healthcare Canada, pointed to the use of health technology as a cost-effective tool for personal health management. On the low-tech side, employers are discovering the value of enabling access to care, particularly when peer support comes into play. The public sector is also putting more of a push on personal health management. “Some conditions don’t have cures. Instead, we have to learn to live with them by managing the symptoms,” said Dr. Bob Bell, Ontario’s deputy minister of health and long-term care. He cited ongoing pilot projects that use a self-managed approach with group therapy, “which is enormously cost-effective.” However, while the prevalence of some health risk factors, such as smoking, have declined, Bell agreed that more can be done in preventative health and the government is always open to partnering with the private sector. “Ontario does not yet have a chronic disease strategy, nor do we have an upstream strategy on how we should invest in these five health risk behaviours. We can do much better with a real strategy toward the prevention and management of chronic disease,” he said.

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