Frist: Health care reform must focus on wellness

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 1:36am
By Former Sen. Bill Frist

The Obama administration has suggested that savings from preventive health services will pay for much of the $1-trillion cost of health reform. Is that true?

Not according to a comprehensive 2009 review article in the journal Health Affairs, which summed up its findings in its subtitle: "An Overwhelming Percentage of Preventive Interventions Add More to Medical Costs Than They Save."

The key word is "interventions." Think about it: Having more people getting more health screenings, mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies has to cost more money.

While we want such services to be widely available, reform that concentrates merely on offering more of those things isn't the way to fix what ails the nation. Instead, we need a system that concentrates on keeping us well, so we need less "health care" and fewer "preventive interventions" in the first place.

The major determinants of health are not doctors, hospitals, universal insurance, public plans and expanded health services. Much more significant is behavior — things such as diet, exercise, smoking and drinking — basic education and socioeconomic status. So if the goal is to make us healthier, to lower the burden and thus the societal costs of disease, policymakers in Washington must actively promote health and wellness. And the way to do that is by providing incentives for the implementation and sustained use of employer-backed wellness programs.

Washington should be looking at wellness solutions like the Vitality program (full disclosure: I've advised Vitality's board of directors). It's an outcomes-oriented program that is data driven, designed to educate and motivate individuals to engage in healthy behavior. Such programs show results: One U.S. manufacturing company found that the average health care cost of those with increased engagement in their own health was more than $100 less per member, per month, after the first year of the program.

The facts supporting such initiatives in lowering the burden of disease are irrefutable. Chronic disease is the No. 1 driver of rising health care costs, accounting for more than 75 percent of all health care spending. Much of the burden of chronic disease can be prevented or alleviated through sustained behavior change.

And the most important behavior to change is what and how we eat.

Obesity is the root cause of chronic disease, accounting for nearly 10 percent of what the U.S. spends annually on health care. It is linked to the explosion in diabetes. It is a primary driver of the "cost curve" rising so much faster than wages. Indeed, obesity is linked to about a third of the increase in health care spending over the last 30 years. It has been estimated that an obese person has 40 percent more annual medical costs each year than a non-obese person. And obesity continues to increase every year; today, a third of our population is overweight.

In addition to providing incentives for employer-sponsored wellness programs, reforms must include lowering co-pays on preventive care, returning physical education to our schools, requiring school lunches to meet nutritional standards and community planning to include places to exercise and sources of healthy foods.

True health care reform requires a radical reorientation of our health sector to emphasize staying well. For the first time in history, we are raising a generation of children who will live sicker and shorter lives than their parents. Where and how we live, learn, work and play have a greater impact on how long and how well we live than added medical services.

This means that any serious health care proposal must include a robust component that aggressively "incentivizes" healthier lifestyle choices and removes obstacles to such choices.

A culture of health with true cost savings will be the legacy.


Nashville’s Frist is a surgeon and former Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate. This commentary first appeared Sept. 20 in the Los Angeles Times.

2 Comments on this post:

By: BigPapa on 9/23/09 at 7:05

How backwards is it that in the USA the stereotype for being poor is that you are fat, smoke and eat rich greasey food. 100 years ago that was the stereotype of a "big business fat cat".

I'm for healthcare reform in that we should take away any and all health care to anyone that can not afford it. eliminated large numbers of the underclass is a net gain for the USA.

By: pswindle on 9/23/09 at 9:56

Sen. Frist, you and your family controlled health-care in TN for years. Let's get another opinion.