Pamela A. Hymel: Why preventive care is critical

By Pamela A. Hymel
Monday, November 9, 2009; 6:25 PM

In recent reports and letters to Senate and House leaders, the Congressional Budget Office says there is no evidence that preventive health care saves money -- and that actually it has the potential to do the opposite by extending the lives of our citizens, who eventually will rely on programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

But as leaders in Congress debate the issue of preventive health care, they should not focus simply on how much it will cost. Rather, they should think about how much prevention will earn: the potentially huge impact of work-based disease prevention and wellness programs on our economy and national productive output. Simply put, a healthier workforce is a more productive workforce -- on virtually every level one can measure: From an individual's daily work performance and satisfaction to a company's bottom line and the nation's gross domestic product.

A recent study from my organization, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, involved more than 150,000 workers and indicates that the nation's employers are vastly underestimating the economic impact of poor health among their employees.

Major health risks, such as obesity and smoking, and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and depression, are sapping our national economic output.

The impact on a company's bottom line of absenteeism related to health conditions and health risks is significant. But absenteeism is being compounded by a condition known as presenteeism -- in which employees continue working, but at impaired levels due to these health conditions and risks. Our research shows that presenteeism is a much larger problem than most employers realize and that it is seriously affecting their ability to produce, to innovate and to compete.

Our studies also show that well-planned programs to address chronic health conditions in the workplace can significantly impact the bottom-line of organizations that implement them. The result: greater individual productivity, increased national economic input, healthier and happier workers, and stronger communities.

Productivity gains related to improved health are like a tide that raises all boats -- the net improvements in productive capacity are a counterweight against the cost of the disease prevention and health promotion programs that achieve these results.

Pamela A. Hymel is president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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