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Businesses can create a healthier workforce, community

Our country spends more than twice as much per-person on health care than any other nation. Yet many other countries have far better health outcomes.

We also have nearly 50 million uninsured people, with millions more woefully underinsured. It all combines to make access to quality care a big and growing problem.

Health care reform seeks to “fix” our broken health care system by focusing on the triple aim of reducing costs, improving quality and improving access.

St. Luke’s and many other health care networks are committed to improvement, but we simply can’t do it alone. We must take a populationwide approach focused on improving health outcomes for entire communities. To truly be effective, we need to partner with educational institutions, community organizations and – in particular – the business community.

While hospitals continue to do their part, many health issues are intricately tied to social issues: poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, overeating and physical inactivity. So it will take the actions of both the private and public sectors to address them.

The goal: make communities and workplaces vibrant and productive through improved health status while reducing health care costs.

Businesses are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role, directly through worksite health promotion programs for employees, and indirectly by supporting health care initiatives designed for healthier communities.

Workplace wellness utilizes health fairs, education, medical screenings, coaching, weight management, newsletters and on-site fitness programs. Forward-thinking companies offer flex-time for exercise, on-site kitchen and eating areas, healthy vending machines options, “walk-and-talk” meetings and financial and other incentives.

Nearly 75 percent of our massive health care bill goes toward managing chronic diseases. When businesses guide employees toward healthier living, they can help to reduce health care costs, while improving its quality and increasing access to care. By lowering the incidence of chronic disease among workers, companies also can reduce their employee coverage costs.

But they can’t just invest in their current employees. For maximum impact, the investment must go well beyond their walls – to the community.

Today’s workers change jobs more frequently. So it is in the best interest of any business to look more broadly at the impact healthy employees have on overall community health.

Likewise, employee health issues impact their employers and fellow employees (e.g. sick time, lost productivity, etc.).

As previously stated, many health issues have complex societal ties. No single sector, program or solution can possibly solve them alone.

Strategic alliances between business and the community create positive results that neither side could gain alone. Employees can volunteer. Businesses can provide financial resources to help make communities stronger.

As communities get stronger, businesses gets stronger, since residents purchase their products and services.

A good business benefits the community by providing contacts, networking and advertising that may lead to more business. So, supporting healthy employees and investing in community health really is a win-win proposition.

St. Luke’s University Health Network is actively engaged in developing programs to improve the health status our local community.

One such program, called “Get Your Tail on the Trail,” presented in partnership with Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, aims to get Lehigh Valley residents to achieve recommended physical activity levels through walking. To date, more than 2,200 Lehigh Valley residents have joined, logging more than 160,000 miles.

The program was created in response to St. Luke’s recent Community Health Needs Assessment. The program is innovative in ways that differentiate it from usual programs and services offered by hospitals, thanks in no small way to the network’s vice president of marketing, Ken Szydlow, who recently said: “It’s a working, interactive example of our role in helping the Lehigh Valley to get and stay healthy.”

Partnerships with local businesses make these programs even more meaningful. You can get involved by promoting this and other programs to employees and their families. Offering prizes to reward participants who achieve predetermined goals acts as added incentive to get and stay involved.

Data show it’s more cost effective for businesses to invest in preventive health practices than to spend resources exclusively on the small minority of employees and dependents responsible for high-cost health claims.

When employees are healthy, they have reduced absenteeism, improved productivity and a lower risk of injury. It’s easy to see how the entire community benefits.

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