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Workplace wellness on the Medical Campus bears fruit

Pediatric residents with the University at Buffalo medical school scrapped "Timbit Tuesdays" in favor of "Fresh Fruit Fridays."

Evergreen Health opened a more nutritious market in its staff lounge two years ago, started a “walk the stairs” effort last month, and in April will launch a wellness passport that gives workers a $20 gift card for reaching healthy benchmarks.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc. (BNMC) boasts a healthy vending machine and treadmill desk, and has helped other nearby employers add indoor tower veggie gardens and water filtration systems.

The steps are part of a five-year state Healthy Workplace Initiative that aims to lower risk factors for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases in 85 high-needs communities across New York, including Buffalo.

“Sometimes we’re challenging the status quo,” said Elizabeth Machnica, the BNMC Healthy Communities catalyst who leads the effort across the city. “Sometimes Human Resources is focused on biometric screening and traditional wellness – which is great – but you have to take it a step further and look at the workplace culture, not just your cholesterol level or your blood pressure.”

The initiative recently pushed into its fourth year. It works with 30 companies of all sizes, public and private, and hopes to help at least 20 more by next year. The companies come from a variety of industries, with workplace wellness programs in different stages of development. The goal is to improve employee nutrition, fitness and health, and lower stress, by sharing best practices and connecting company wellness leaders with resources that can help them do the most good in their workplaces.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc. employee Sarah Warner swipes her credit card to access the smart fridge during a lunch break in the lobby at BNMC Innovation Center at 640 Ellicott St. Farmers & Artisans, a market in Snyder with roots in the regional agricultural community, operates the service. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

“It’s really nice to have these resources available, especially since this isn’t my full-time job,” said Melissa Delgado, human resources generalist with Evergreen Health.

Delgado handles benefits and helps with payroll for the nonprofit agency that has about 400 workers and provides medical, behavioral and other support to the underserved. She spends about 20 percent of her time leading wellness efforts with help from several co-worker volunteers.

She and other workers who focus on wellness programming operate in a region where half the counties – including Erie and Niagara – fall near the bottom statewide in terms of length and quality of life.

Machnica and other workplace wellness advocates continue to chip away at doubts in some corners about the need for such programs – particularly when it comes to the bottom line.

Bad food + smoking - exercise = Shorter lives for Western New Yorkers

Such skepticism has disappeared among public health leaders.

U.S. wellness programs take place in a country that spends far more on health care than any other – and where most chronic conditions can be prevented, halted or delayed. The average annual cost of medical treatment for an American with a chronic condition runs $5,300; for prevention, $116, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working adults account for two-thirds of health care costs nationwide, according to the American Heart Association, and many don’t understand their health status. The association in 2016 released an employee survey in which three-quarters of participants reported being in good or very good health, despite nearly half of them saying they have at least one chronic illness.

“This isn’t just a medical and public health crisis, it is also an economic crisis,” the association says in its online Workplace Health Playbook.

Insurance premiums and employee medical claims stand nationally at an all-time high and continue to climb, according to the CDC, which also reports that:

  • One of every $5 in health costs go to treat those with cardiovascular disease.
  • Work-related stress leads workplace health woes, ranking above physical inactivity and obesity.
  • Productivity losses from missed work costs employers $1,685 per employee, each year.
  • Full-time workers who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health problems miss about 450 million more days of work each year than healthy workers.

If risks fell just 1 percent in the level of four health challenges – weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol – it would save $83 to $103 each year in medical costs per person, the CDC estimates.

Leaders with the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences decided that residents and fellows would be one good place to ramp up wellness at UB. The work intensified in late 2017, when the university medical school moved to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Machnica plugged into the program’s well-being committee.

Amy Numrich, left, and Lea Passage, deliver fresh fruit and bottled water as part of the John R. Oishei Children's Hospital Pediatric Residency Program "Fresh Fruit Fridays" effort to promote wellness in the workplace. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“How do you find this balance between your own wellness and inspiring wellness in your patients? When we launched this effort, that was the premise,” said Dr. Susan Major Orrange, assistant dean for education and resident services at the medical school. “We want to inspire residents to be well, but we also want residents to inspire their patients to be well.”

The medical school oversees 800 residents and fellows who work on the Medical Campus, as well as with Catholic Health, Erie County Medical Center and Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A staff of 20 supports those student doctors, who tend to work up to 80 hours a week.

“Beth brought something to the committee we hadn’t seen before,” Orrange said. “We have lots of links nationally in terms of what other residency programs are doing but this was a really nice way to fill links with the community – to understand this is something that had been a focus in Buffalo for a while and there was momentum building in the community.”

Student doctors are career-driven, she said, and can often be so focused on their patients that they tune out calls to care for themselves. The committee in recent years has looked to address that dynamic with reminders that these front-line caregivers are role models for those they serve. The wellness program rolled out yoga and healthy cooking classes that focus on quick, healthy meals and snacks. It streamlined mental health support. Residency programs gave new doctors the chance to attend well-being retreats, get Fitbits and go on educational outings to the Buffalo Zoo and a volleyball center, all to encourage more wellness.

“Residency is very difficult, so when you have these activities, it’s an easy opportunity,” said Dr. Mary Kate Mannix, a Kalamazoo, Mich., native who completed her residency last summer and is now a pediatric infectious disease fellow at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital on the Medical Campus. “Even our residents who don’t have time to cook because they’re so overworked realized they can enjoy cooking and enjoy cooking healthy foods.”

Orrange and her staff, who work on the seventh floor of the medical school, joined in the process by climbing the stairs to start work and at least one other point during the day. They call it “hiking the Jacobs mountain.” They also helped distribute fruit and bottled water on "Fresh Fruit Fridays" at Children’s.

“There’s a little cheer that comes, so the residents know the fresh fruit has arrived,” Mannix said.

Mike Gagliano, left, CEO of Shared Mobility Inc., and Elizabeth Machnica, Healthy Communities catalyst with BNMC Inc., discuss a project as he uses a treadmill desk. Machnica will be a featured panelist next week at the third annual American Heart Association Buffalo Niagara Wellness Conference. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

BNMC Inc. – a nonprofit that fosters collaboration and shared interests on and around the Medical Campus – also is at work on a parallel plan to bring more locally sourced, fresh foods onto patient menus and into employee dining spots on the campus, and with GObike Buffalo as it continues to support the city’s Complete Streets plans to encourage more biking and walking across Buffalo.

“We’re gradually making progress,” Machnica said. “It’s a process.”

There have been plenty of signs of success, including on “Thank a Resident Day.” Last year at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, staff gave $5 gift certificates to the Healthy Scratch. This year, ECMC sponsored a healthy lunch.

“These felt like small victories,” Orrange said. “We didn’t directly say, ‘If you’re going to say thank you, do it in a healthy way.’ They did it on their own, and that was exciting.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT WORKPLACE WELLNESS

What: Third annual Buffalo Niagara Wellness Conference

When: 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: The Lexus Club at KeyBank Center

Host: The American Heart Association WNY affiliate

Topics: Engaging employees through workplace wellness, mental health in the workplace, local approaches to workplace health (led by Elizabeth Machnica, the BNMC Healthy Communities catalyst), and a panel discussion

Keynote speaker: Worksite wellness trainer Larry Chapman, who will talk about what workplace incentives work

Tickets: $50, which includes lunch and free parking in the KeyBank Center ramp. Registration is required; click here.

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