Employer Leverage: Key Step Toward Mitigating Rising Healthcare Costs

Chronic conditions are largely preventable by pursuing a lifestyle marked by healthful diet, regular physical activity, tobacco avoidance, moderate alcohol intake, and weight management. It is therefore essential to identify and capitalize on opportunities to influence health behaviors at a population level.

The US faces unsustainable healthcare spending growth, in no small part fueled by a health crisis that is marked by epidemic levels of obesity and related chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and many types of cancer. Such chronic conditions are largely preventable by pursuing a lifestyle marked by healthful diet, regular physical activity, tobacco avoidance, moderate alcohol intake, and weight management. It is therefore essential to identify and capitalize on opportunities to influence health behaviors at a population level.

The workplace presents a uniquely advantageous setting for health promotion, and employers are uniquely positioned to drive lasting change in the way our nation approaches health and healthcare.

As payers of employee healthcare, and direct beneficiaries of employee health and ensuing productivity, employers have a vested interest in providing their employees with the knowledge, tools and opportunities they need to get and stay well, and in equipping them to make more efficient use of healthcare when they need it.

More than any other healthcare stakeholder, employers' financial incentives are aligned with health promotion - in terms of the resultant reduction in demand for healthcare utilization, as well as improvements to productivity, absenteeism, morale, retention, and recruitment.

Moreover, employers have a rare opportunity to influence the daily behaviors of their employees - given the amount of time employees spend at the workplace, as well as the leverage derived from the ability to shape corporate culture, workplace environment, policy, and the like.

With power comes responsibility. However, many forward-thinking employers have come to see this responsibility not as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage - in terms of direct cost savings, as well as numerous indirect benefits ranging from corporate image to improved retention and employee loyalty.

In a recent WSJ article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124476804026308603.html), Steve Burd, CEO of Safeway Inc. and founder of the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform, describes how his company is saving money by financially incenting healthy behaviors and engendering a culture of health and fitness.

In another recent article from the WSJ, (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124881294102087507.html), Clayton Christensen and Jason Hwang (authors of "The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Healthcare") explore several innovative changes that executives can make to better serve their employees while lowering their healthcare costs, including encouraging the use nurse-staffed in-store health clinics.

These are but several of many proactive measures that employers are using to mitigate rising healthcare costs while empowering their employees to improve their health and become savvier healthcare consumers. If employers continue to pursue these innovative (and common sense) strategies, and take greater advantage of their unique opportunity to influence the health and care of their employees, they may very well end up being a bigger part of the solution that anyone would have predicted.