The Calm Before the Storm – Why Prevention is Pivotal for Your Health Strategy
Ryan Bojrab, DPT
June 23, 2021
While the growing vaccine demand signals a potential turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s health crisis is far from over. One year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many adults report negative behavior changes that may be related to an inability to cope with prolonged stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Stress in America poll. But, this is just the calm before the storm. We’ll soon be looking at a population with increasing chronic illness. As an employer, it’s crucial to consider a health strategy rooted in prevention. Let’s examine how we got here and what it means to prioritize prevention for your people.
Poor Health Stemming from the Pandemic
APA’s survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February 2021 by The Harris Poll, shows that 61% of Americans experienced undesired weight changes—weight gain or loss—since the pandemic started. Additionally, 42% reported they gained more weight than they intended, averaging 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds), with 10% reporting they gained more than 50 pounds.
Such weight changes come with significant health risks, including cardiometabolic conditions, cancer, and higher vulnerability to serious illness from COVID-19. For the 18% of Americans who said they lost more weight than they wanted to, the average amount of weight lost was 26 pounds (median amount lost was 12 pounds).
Adults also reported unwanted changes in sleep and increased alcohol consumption. Two in three responses said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started, while 23% reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.
Increasing Chronic Conditions
COVID-19 has brought to the forefront that chronic conditions matter when it comes to the risks of acute conditions. The top five conditions frequently seen on claims that significantly impact spend are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal conditions, cancer, and as of recently, mental health. The trends I see across our book of business are around 45% of the population has at least one chronic disease that is driving over 80% of the claims cost. The good news is that 75-80% of lifestyle-related chronic conditions can be prevented, better managed, and, in some cases, even reversed by focusing on healthy eating,, physical activity, stress management techniques, and other lifestyle interventions.
Often, prevention is put on the back burner for employers. According to the CDC, 73.6% of the adult population is considered overweight or obese. The root causes of obesity tend to be overeating, stress and emotional eating, and lack of physical activity and sleep. The mind and body connection are strong, as there’s a psychological component to chronic disease and a physical component to mental diseases.
Increased adipose tissue around the waistline is a significant risk factor for developing chronic conditions. By maintaining a healthy weight, your employees can avoid costly medications, medical bills, and a sedentary lifestyle. Preventive solutions in the workplace keep falling through the cracks and are not getting the attention they deserve. By proactively addressing the root cause of chronic disease, rather than managing the symptoms, you’re able to make a far greater impact on the health of your organization.
Harnessing the Power of Digital Health
We live in a digital world, which grew rapidly in response to COVID-19 to break down barriers to healthcare, social support, and workplace culture. Just as Zoom became the new meeting norm, telemedicine became the go-to means for addressing health issues in a safe and effective way. A few changes we saw during this time include:
· Doctors shifted to telehealth visits for wellness checks and sick visits.
· Dietitians and health coaches met with patients virtually.
· Remote monitoring solutions paired with behavioral coaching trended upward.
· Business leaders relied on digital platforms to communicate with their people about COVID-19, promote healthy habits while working from home, and connect employees with the resources and tools they need to stay well.
The future of health is digital. Through predictive modeling and AI learning, well-being and navigation platforms are becoming smarter and more personalized, allowing these digital solutions to tailor to the exact needs of each user.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever go back to a life without telemedicine or partially remote workforces, Which means employers need to invest in the appropriate tools to ensure their workforces can stay connected. By creating a culture of digital health centered around prevention and lifestyle medicine, your organization can address a broad range of employee health needs and improve the long-term vitality of your people.
Ryan Bojrab, DPT is the Senior Director, Health Strategy at First Person Advisors, now a subsidiary of NFP, helping organizations to make data-driven decisions around their benefits and well-being strategies.