The Future of Health Is Preventable
Summary: With health care costs rising and chronic disease set to skyrocket, the United States is facing a health crisis, leaving us to wonder: can this crisis be prevented?
The United States is facing a monumental health crisis with one in four people living with two or more chronic conditions.
Medical costs are rising at an alarming rate, and while it would seem like more spending would mean we are getting healthier, better health outcomes aren’t following the spending trend. The cost of treating prediabetes, for instance, increased by over 74% in the course of five years, yet diabetes diagnoses are only continuing to grow.
The U.S. facing rising medical cost with 84% of US health spending on chronic disease patients. If things continue in this direction, the Centers for Disease Control calculates that by 2030 one in three Americans will have diabetes.
Unfortunately, clinician numbers aren’t increasing at the same rate as patients presenting with a chronic illness, meaning patients won’t be able to receive the kind of care they need.
For the future of health care to continue in a positive direction, something has to change. This leaves us asking: can the U.S. decrease spending while also improving patient outcomes?
Focus on low-risk groups
Consider this: 6 in 10 US adults have at least one chronic disease. A large portion of them are in early, non-acute stages of their conditions. However, in the next decade, many in this population will progress to acute chronic disease; they will become symptomatic, develop higher risk and cost more to the health care system. Currently, however, they’re in maintenance stages that can benefit from preventative measures.
While the US has become incredibly skilled at treating chronic disease, we are not so good at treating the behaviors and reasons (the ‘conditions of life’) that result in disease, to begin with. If we could prevent low-risk and pre-chronic disease populations from becoming high risk, acute cases, we would begin to see lower costs and improved outcomes. But to reach these at-risk patients, health care may need to adjust its paradigm to fit their unique needs.
The key to stopping the progression of pre- and low-risk chronic disease is through patient engagement and self-management. The only scalable and sustainable approach to addressing the chronic disease pandemic is to engage, educate and activate patients in their own health.
A preventative approach to wellness
Patients with metabolic syndrome (the set of risk factors indicating the early onset of chronic disease) can benefit from learning how to self-manage their health and being equipped with the tools to implement behavior change. By providing them with accessible tools, education and support, we’re enabling them to change their lifestyle behaviors with minimal medical intervention.
The World Health Organization has identified the four key areas of health for the prevention and management of chronic illness. They are nutrition (healthy eating), physical activity (exercise), sleep and stress.
They sound simple, but engaging people in their health and getting them to change their lifestyle behaviors is something clinicians have been struggling with for decades, and they lament the lack of time and no way to influence their patients’ behaviors once they’ve left the doctors office.
That’s now changed. Digital tools and health coaching has meant patients can now access support, guidance, education and motivation from the convenience of their home and without the presence of a clinician. This improves access for the patient and reduces the workload on the clinician who can then focus on patients with more acute needs.
To truly enable patient self-management, we have to look beyond the traditional bounds of health care. In fact, health care has an incredible untapped workforce that could help engage patients in their own health: patients themselves.
Thanks to technology, we can now give patients any time, anywhere support through online peer communities. Guided by a health coach and a community manager, these peer groups provide encouragement, motivation, education, and support as patients seek to prevent disease and limit symptoms. In addition, coaches can guide patients in setting goals as well as encouraging them to see their doctor should they have concerns.
Supported by technology, these peer communities and para-professionals, patients have the tools and self-knowledge they need to make behavior change. Clinicians, in turn, have more insight into a patient’s progression so they can provide better care – without extra workload.
Using whole-person care to address patient needs
When coupled with whole-person wellness, preventative care is a powerful tool for managing health. In this way, the healthcare industry can address all factors that negatively influence patient health.
Looking beyond the physical symptoms
In addressing the whole person, it’s important to identify negative factors that can impact patients’ medical conditions. Here are the most common contributors to patient wellness:
- Physical health
- Mental/Emotional health
- Social health
- Spiritual and emotional health
- Social determinants of health such as financial, transport and housing
These factors have a profound impact on long-term illness. Psychosocial health encompasses the mental, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions of health, whereas the social determinants of health are those factors that can act as barriers to patients getting well – such as finances, housing and transport. Without addressing these dimensions and barriers, it can be very difficult for patients to get well.
Lack of education and awareness is also a significant issue. Many people are living with the early onset of a chronic condition but don’t know it. In fact, the CDC estimates that 90% of people with prediabetes don’t even know they have it.
Empowering the whole person for lifestyle change
Whole-person care isn’t just about improving physical symptoms (although that is part of the goal). It’s about improving quality of life, leading to better health outcomes. As patients work towards better health behaviors, they can potentially limit chronic symptoms.
We all know that diseases such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes may be prevented with lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity, adopting healthy eating habits and managing stress. Health coaches and peer groups can enable and encourage progress in such activities.
Whole-person wellness also means helping patients with mental and emotional barriers that negatively influence health. For many patients with chronic disease, it’s common to struggle with depression and anxiety.
Mental illness and chronic health conditions often go hand in hand. To really help patients deal with a chronic illness, patients can benefit from having the tools to develop emotional resilience and motivational endurance.
How could this strategy lower health care costs
By preventing or delaying at-risk groups from developing chronic conditions and by helping patients manage their chronic conditions, health care decreases the number of medical interventions needed. This means less ED utilization and fewer medical interventions resulting in a reduction in the total cost of care.
In addition, with the help of health coaches, patients can knowledgeably manage symptoms and factors that influence their health. As health coaches interact with and monitor patient symptoms, they can also guide them to receive further medical care at the right time and place. This has the potential to lower costs since patients are more likely to receive timely care when needed.
Whole-person, preventative care can also help the U.S. avoid the impending clinician-to-patient ratio crisis. By providing lifestyle advice and helping patients change their behavior, health coaches and peer support communities can mean less medical intervention, freeing up clinicians time to see people with more complex health issues.
By leveraging prevention, self-management, and patient communities, health care organizations can enable patients in behavior change to halt or slow the looming chronic disease crisis.