Former President & CEO, INTEGRIS Health

How is this Possible?

Published in The Journal Record
January 13, 2016

There is an old riddle about a man and his son riding in their car, having a major accident. The man is killed instantly.  The boy, badly injured, is taken to the hospital for immediate surgery.  The surgeon enters the operating room, looks at the boy, and explains, “I cannot operate on this boy; he is my son.”  The riddle is posed, “How is this possible?”  The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.  While the answer appears obvious, many are stumped because gender stereotypes assume the surgeon must be a man. 

There is another conundrum in health care which postulates that wellness programs will save huge amounts in reduced healthcare costs.  Like our riddle the answer seems obvious until we peel back a few layers.  The simple truth is that none of us are getting out of here alive.  The longer we live, the more we are exposed to chronic disease.  The more we are exposed to chronic disease, the more costly the medical treatments that can benefit us.  The truth is that if some expensive medical intervention keeps us alive today, we will die of something more expensive to treat later.  That’s exactly the problem with the Medicare program.  The medical care system has been so successful in extending life that its own success could eventually bankrupt the program.  It was never contemplated when Medicare started in 1965 that the elderly would commonly live into their 90’s and use huge amounts of medical resources to keep extending their lives.

The same conundrum exists for corporate wellness programs.  Unquestionably, we are all better off to exercise vigorously and eat properly.  The problem is that economic benefits of a healthier lifestyle take years to come into evidence.  Beside a healthier and more motivated workforce the cost of a wellness program in health care savings is hard to prove.  This is the reason few insurance companies invest in wellness.  By the time a workforce shows the benefits of an aggressive wellness program so much time has passed that more than likely a new insurance company will reap the economic benefits.

While wellness programs are obviously the right thing to do an employer is hard pressed to justify it on the basis of reduced healthcare costs.  Almost as obvious as having a mother as a surgeon.

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