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Improving Health Through Prevention

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From William C. Weldon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Johnson & Johnson

Although I’ve been a reader of JNJBTW since it was launched, I’ve yet to be a contributor. Today, though, I gave a talk on prevention and why we should pay as much attention to keeping people healthy as we do to treating them when they’re sick – and I thought it was something readers of this blog may find of interest. 

Now I know it may sound simplistic or obvious to say preventing disease is better than treating or curing it, and it may be surprising to hear someone like me – who heads the world’s largest health care products company – advocating this idea.  

But if you’ve spent a lifetime in health care, as I have, you just can’t ignore the nagging sense that there must be a better way to improve the health and well-being of people and make our health care system financially viable than just doing more of what we do now.

While new drugs and technologies help us treat - and cure - many diseases today, it’s also true that we’re treating a lot of preventable disease. The World Health Organization says 80 percent of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and 40 percent of cancer could be prevented if people would just do three things: eat healthy, be physically active and not smoke.

Sounds easy, but if it were, we’d all be doing it.

Hard as it may be, how can we not try to move people toward healthy lifestyles? Chronic disease accounts for 75 percent of U.S healthcare spending and about $1 trillion a year in lost productivity, ( not to mention the suffering that goes with diabetes, stroke, heart disease, or cancer.

So, I discussed that at the World Health Care Congress today and explained how we’ve been able to cut health risks – and costs – among our employees through prevention and wellness at work. Call it our form of “Do It Yourself” Health Care Reform, and we hope other employers will join in.

So what have we done at J&J?

Back in 1978, one of my predecessors as CEO at J&J – Jim Burke –was facing a doubling of health care costs. He decided to address these rising expenditures by creating a healthy workforce. At J&J, prevention involves helping healthy employees stay well, identifying and managing health risks, diagnosing and treating chronic disease early and managing high cost chronic disease.

Today J&J employees get a $500 discount off their health insurance premiums if they work to reduce their health risks – things like smoking, overeating, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, hypertension and stress. 

We try to make this easier to do, with on-site clinics, screenings, counseling, gym facilities, and cafeterias that served healthy food. We also have interactive and personalized digital health coaching that’s available 24/7. The coaching is tailored to each person’s motivations, confidence level, medical needs, personal characteristics and lifestyle. 

So what’s the result? Only 4 percent of J&J employees smoke compared with more than 18 percent of Americans. Less than 7 percent of our people have high blood pressure, yet 28 percent of the U.S. public does. Seven percent of J&J employees have high cholesterol, while five times as many Americans – 37 percent – do. And while we’re not satisfied that 20 percent of our employees are obese, that’s far better than the 34 percent obesity rate for America overall.

With those kinds of changes, we estimate we’ve avoided some $21 million in costs from 2001 to 2009 alone. Our health care costs are trending 4 percent below increases for industries such as ours. And our return on investment has been 4 to 1, about $4 in healthcare and productivity savings for every dollar we’ve spent on prevention.

If companies – big and small – placed more focus on prevention, and government incented such services, retirees might enter their Medicare years with fewer costly chronic diseases. Since Medicare is more than 20 percent of the Federal budget, maybe we could see smaller deficits down the road, not to mention, an America that’s more competitive in the global marketplace.

Prevention adds up to more than dollars and cents. Employees tell us all the time what a huge difference our programs have made for them – how they’ve beaten back obesity, gained control over high blood pressure, started breathing better, and taken up exercise. 

There’s no value you can put on this.

And that’s what I said today at World Health Care Congress. People invest emotionally in their jobs if we invest in them. And for the time we all spend at work, an investment in health is not such a big investment after all.

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