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Expert: Workplace wellness, prevention programs key to better health

February 03, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Robin Haywood, Director of Corporate Compensation & Benefits for Meritus Health, Inc. speaks on the counties health at a forum at Robinwood Medical Center on Friday.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Washington County residents have, on average, higher rates of cancer, heart attacks and strokes than the rest of Maryland, and one place to begin improving those statistics is in the workplace, a state disease expert said Friday.

Maryland has approximately 6 million residents, half of whom spend nine hours or more at work each day, analyst Katie Jones of the Maryland Office of Chronic Disease Prevention told a group of health care and business professionals at the Robinwood Professional Center.

“It’s a key place to target adults” for wellness and prevention programs, Jones said. “The health of the work force ... is very closely linked to the health of your business.”

Jones was at the Wellness@Work seminar to promote the state’s Healthiest Maryland Businesses initiative, which has signed up more than 200 businesses since 2010. Businesses can save on health care costs, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and realize other benefits of having a healthy work force, she said.

“Eighty-four percent of health care costs are for chronic diseases,” such as diabetes, Jones told the attendees. Eliminating smoking, improving diets and increasing exercise could cut the incidence of heart disease and stroke and Type 2 diabetes by as much 80 percent, and cancer by 40 percent, she said.

Obesity, a contributing factor to many chronic illnesses, has risen dramatically since 1995, when only one county in the state had an average body mass index in the obesity range. As of 2009, about half the state, including Washington County, fell into that category, according to a chart she showed from the Maryland Behavioral Risk Surveillance System.

Some steps are simple, such as stocking vending machines with more healthful drinks and snacks, or company cafeterias that offer healthier meal choices at lower prices, Jones said.

There can be compliance issues for wellness programs, particularly for those businesses that offer incentives or rewards to employees, said Steve Dillman, senior vice president of the consulting firm CBIZ.

In recent years Meritus Health has made health-risk assessments available to about 2,500 employees covered by its health care plan, and participation has been about 90 percent, said Robin Haywood, director of corporate compensation and benefits.

A look at a sampling of 48 members who either stopped smoking, began taking cholesterol medications or high blood-pressure medications showed an annual health care savings to Meritus that exceeded $377,000, Haywood said.

Jones said more information is available on the Healthiest Maryland Businesses initiative at www.dhmh.maryland.gov/healthiest.

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