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Is Self-Care the New Health Care?

Many minor, routine conditions don't require a doctor's visit

Ten percent of visits to the doctor’s office are unnecessary, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA). Those appointments cost U.S. employers billions of dollars in lost productivity and unnecessary health care costs. But what if employees knew how to recognize routine medical issues that they can treat themselves? And what if companies encouraged such self-treatment?

While no one expects to turn employees into diagnosticians, providing a little education and access to health information as part of workplace wellness efforts can mitigate the need to visit a doctor for a number of common ailments.

That’s precisely what some participants at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Annual Health Care Summit want employers to do.

“Unhealthy workers are unproductive workers—and they’re expensive,” according to Scott Wallace, distinguished fellow at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University. The cost of poor health is estimated to be 3 to 10 times the total cost of all employee benefits, he noted at the Oct. 20 summit in Washington, D.C.

“It’s essential that we continue our search for value,” added Scott Melville, CEO of the CHPA, an industry trade group.

The largest cost to employers is presenteeism: People who are at work but are unproductive because of their health problems. The cost of presenteeism is higher than the combined costs of medical care, prescription drugs and absenteeism. “By some estimates, it accounts for an estimated 10 percent of all labor costs,” according to Sean Sullivan, CEO of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management (IHPM), a nonprofit organization that advocates treating employee health as a business asset.

Promoting Self-Care, When Appropriate

The good news is that employers are in an ideal position to help employees change their behavior, Sullivan said. This is where self-care comes in. Self-care is defined by the World Health Organization as “personal health maintenance to improve or restore health and to treat preventative diseases.”

Self-care comes in various forms, according to Melville. These include:

  • Prevention methods.
  • Exercise.
  • Healthy eating.
  • Taking dietary supplements.
  • Treatment of chronic conditions.
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

OTC drugs are a critical component of self-care because they can be an effective option to manage minor ailments and chronic conditions. One study cited by the IHPM estimated that every $1 spent on OTC medicines saved the U.S. health care system $6 to $7 due to fewer physician visits and less spending on medical care.

Lisle, Ill.-based Navistar International, which manufactures commercial trucks, buses and defense vehicles, has successfully used self-care as a strategy to manage employee wellness and productivity, according to an IHPM white paper. The company gave its 16,500 employees self-care manuals that encourage the use of OTC medicines for common health problems. As a result, the company said it has saved between $1 million and $2 million annually (excluding savings from reduced presenteeism) for more than 10 years. (Wallace suggested that is a useful website for employers and employees to learn about the proper use of OTC drugs.)

Common Conditions

A handful of conditions account for the bulk of the costs of presenteeism and reduced productivity on the job. These include:

  • Mental health issues, chiefly depression.
  • Musculoskeletal pain, such as lower back pain and repetitive motion strain.
  • Respiratory problems, primarily allergies.
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

But all of these conditions (excluding mental health) are ripe for self-treatment, Sullivan said.

And that could add up to significant savings. Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace firm with 112,000 employees, determined that lower back pain, allergies and GERD cost the company $3.25 million every year in lost productivity at work.

While brand-name pharmaceutical companies run pricey TV ads encouraging consumers to visit their doctors and ask for the latest, frequently expensive treatment (especially for GERD), these conditions generally can be self-managed by employees cost-effectively through the use of OTC medicines, Sullivan remarked.

Before making a self-care program part of a health and wellness strategy, employers first need to know the health care needs of their employees, Wallace advised. Similarly, Sullivan suggested targeting the population of workers who have common conditions that cause presenteeism. “These are all really treatable,” he said.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.

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