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Health care is the biggest employer in WNY. Here are six trends for 2019.

The health and wellness business in Western New York has never been more robust.

The health care and social assistance “super subsector” is the region's largest employer – 14.6 percent of all Western New York workers, said Timothy Glass, regional labor market analyst with the state Department of Labor. That's more than local government, retail trade and manufacturing.

And the number of jobs continues to grow – 12.8 percent during the last decade.

Here's what will be hot in health care this year:

Fewer opioids. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center this year will become the first American hospital to start an opioid-sparing treatment for many of its patients. A two-year study suggested that pain after surgery can be just as effectively managed with little or no narcotic painkillers. Orthopedic specialists are among physicians that now use other means to improve function and reduce pain after surgery, including non-addictive medicines, physical therapy, acupuncture and exercise.

More wellness. Health rankings released last year that measure length and quality of life showed that Erie, Chautauqua, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties placed 57th through 60th, respectively, among the 62 counties in New York State. That spurred new efforts by the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, among others. The Wellness Institute wants to bring a regional walkability conference to Buffalo this year. Roswell Park has become a worldwide leader in underlining the dangers of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Members of its Department of Health Behavior are leading a pair of international studies funded by more than $26 million in federal grants and contracts.

Kathy Clerkin, 75, who belongs to three hiking clubs, gets ready for a walk through Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park. A retired nurse, Clerkin also works out six days a week at the Southtowns Family YMCA and leads an active social life. The University at Buffalo Center for Successful Aging looks to help others follow Clerkin’s lead. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Healthier aging. The UB Center for Successful Aging has grown into an effort that involves almost 50 researchers from 19 UB departments and a dozen schools within the university. The aim this year is to work more closely with community centers, civic organizations and other schools.

New cancer treatments. New cancer drugs look to pierce and damage cancer cells, or create an immune response that sends the body’s disease fighters to overwhelm those cells. Dr. Igor Puzanov and his Roswell Park Early Phase Clinical Trials team are studying using both strategies in combination. Meanwhile, improvements in robotic cancer surgery continue. Dr. Dheerendra Prasad, director of the Roswell Park Gamma Knife Center, has treated more than 12,000 patients with the gamma knife and helps train doctors around the world on the cancer surgery technology.

Focus on mental health. A growing number of family practices are adding behavioral health specialists to their medical teams. Meanwhile, addiction treatment agencies have added dozens more treatment beds in recent months and ECMC has announced a $55 million project to double the size of its emergency department by mid-2020.

Helping needy patients. To combat “social determinants of health” – factors such as smaller incomes, lack of transportation and limited access to healthy foods – regional health leaders are investing in patient navigators, who connect those in need of health and social services to robust resources. “You can provide the meds, but if you're not engaged with the nutritional and exercise components, you have a very minimal impact," said Dr. Raul Vazquez, chief executive of Urban Family Practice, which shares space on Buffalo's West Side with the Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network.

The network in 2017 established a Wellness & Physical Fitness Program that has helped hundreds of Medicaid patients lower their high blood sugar and blood pressure levels. "Patients are engaged in the process,” Vasquez said. “They're understanding more about their diseases."

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