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Editorial: The business of employee health

The effects of unhealthy habits are cumulative. When someone visits an emergency room for treatment of a stroke or heart attack, a chronic condition is manifesting itself that was likely years in the making.

That is one reason why it can be difficult to convince people to adopt healthier habits. Eating a slice of pizza or a doughnut triggers a release of feel-good dopamine in the brain that makes it tough to remember longer-term goals to lose weight or cut down on junk food.

The Population Health Collaborative is trying a different approach to changing hearts and minds about healthy habits: Making an economic argument. The organization recently released a report highlighting some frightening statistics about Buffalo Niagara’s health challenges and their costs to our region’s economy. Let’s hope the economic message gets through to the parts of our brains that are not covered in powdered sugar.

The collaborative’s report was a wake-up call. Measuring Buffalo Niagara against nine other comparable metro regions, we finished last in five of 10 health indicators: asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart attack and hypertension. Our only first-place slot was in stroke care, a sign that our specialists get plenty of practice.

Some other bottom-line findings: Our region spends $1.3 billion each year to treat eight chronic conditions, and we lose $1.2 billion per year in worker productivity due to five of those conditions: hypertension, obesity, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and depression.

Those are high prices to pay for indulging in pizza, wings and a beer or three.

Bill Purcell, a former mayor of Nashville, spoke to The News in conjunction with the report, stating that our region could miss out on future business projects if we don’t get our health under better control. Purcell said that part of Nashville’s success in attracting businesses wishing to relocate was a public effort to make its citizens healthier, where “issues of quality of life, health and well-being become an element.”

There are numerous government programs and initiatives focusing on public health, including Live Well Erie, an initiative rolled out by Erie County in September. John D. Craik is executive director of the Population Health Collaborative and co-chairman of the steering committee for Live Well Erie. Craik noted that there’s a role for the business community to play in creating a sense of urgency around improving our community’s health.

“We’re trying to show everybody what a problem this is, and from a business perspective, what’s in it for them,” Craik told The News.

Nashville’s Purcell echoed Craik in saying that the business community “can be part of the leadership and part of the solution.”

The response looks promising. More than 504 regional health and business leaders have signed on to help the collaborative.

As Craik observed, our region does not need any more tasks forces, coalitions or other collections of acronyms.

“What we’re proposing is to line up what we already have,” he said. “The business sector just hasn’t been at the table yet, and that’s what we hope to change.”

Employers will face some delicate choices in how to get involved in managing or encouraging their employees’ health outcomes. Individuals who worry about a “nanny state” telling them how to live their lives will not find those interventions any more attractive coming from the private sector.

Then there is the question of how much smart approach, making support available for employees – yoga and strength training classes, free health screenings for employees and their spouses – and encouraging running and other exercise.

Our community has weight to lose and a lot of wellness to gain. We all need to do our parts.

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