Forging A New Wellness Path: Leaving Health Risk Reduction Behind

It's time to cut a new trail...innovate wellness!

It’s time to cut a new trail…innovate wellness!

Attending Lifestyle Medicine 2013 (http://lifestylemedicine.org/lifestylemedicine2013) in the Washington, D.C. area this week I was heartened to be around so many enthusiastic people from the medical world who have embraced the realization of just how behavioral health is. The conference was “small but mighty” and had doubled in size since the previous year.

Dean Ornish (http://www.ornishspectrum.com) spoke for two riveting hours. While he started out with the obligatory review of his professional research on the reversal of heart disease, etc., his last hour was spent focusing almost entirely on how the really key ingredients in health are social support, connectedness, and a person’s spiritual connection or meaning in life.

Dr. Dee Edington

Dr. Dee Edington

We heard from some of the real innovators and leaders in the field like David Katz, Caldwll Esselton, James McDougal and others. Someone on the schedule that I was really looking forward to hearing was Dee Edington  (http://www.edingtonassociates.com/index/aboutus)  It would not be exaggerating to call him the “Godfather Of The HRA” (health risk assessment). His thirty-five years at the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center (http://www.hmrc.umich.edu) forged much of what we know today about health risk assessment and the tons of data that came from researching this field. As wellness programs developed during the 1980’s they all started with giving their populations an HRA and building their wellness programs around the results. HRA’s are still in widespread use as there is tons of evidence that when you can help a population reduce their number of health risks everyone is healthier and healthcare costs are significantly reduced.

HRA’s are hugely incentivized by employers who will offer health insurance premium discounts and/or hundreds of dollars in cash to employees for merely completing them. One upside is that HRA’s today are often what get someone through the wellness coach’s door as they do a follow up interpretation session.

Over the years however, many of us have seen little value in HRA’s from the client’s perspective. Being told that if you eliminate a number of your risky (and often much-loved) lifestyle behaviors will add about 7.2 years to your life usually falls far short of providing what you would call stimulating motivation for change! Most of the coaches that I have trained who are already out there working with clients say three things about HRA’s: 1) we love them for the aggregate data they provide; 2) client’s do not find them motivating (fear based motivation is easy to deny and just doesn’t last); and 3) so many employees do not trust their employers to keep it confidential that they “fake good” on them when they fill them out.

So, for me, Edington’s talk was much anticipated. Dr. Edington began slowly talking boldly about how upon visiting the Lifestyle Medicine website he was disappointed to see that their definition of Lifestyle Medicine was not about health…it was about disease.

“Lifestyle Medicine (LM) is the use of lifestyle interventions in the treatment and management of disease.” (http://lifestylemedicine.org/define)

He then went on to remark how despite accomplishments in many areas, the impact of all our work in medicine, health promotion, etc. the health of the nation is in many ways no better today than it was thirty-five years ago when he began this work. The obesity epidemic and all the chronic diseases (lifestyle driven) that go with it are killing us. Looking back disheartened, he said that our health-risk reduction approach was a mistake. Looking back over thirty-five years and 12 million HRA’s administered, he said “I’d like to take most of them back. I was part of the problem.”

Here was the man everyone listened to for years and who lead an approach to wellness programming that thousands of companies and organizations followed, admitting that we have been on the wrong track all this time. What a huge realization, and what a huge admission!

“We’re in the mud, the muck, talking about risk factors and disease.” he said. What about health? What about real wellness? He urged us to consider instead of running away from healthcare costs, to run toward health!

It was another speaker who quoted Einstein that day (Arthur Franks) but it could just have easily fit into Dee’s Powerpoint presentation.

einstein-quotes-solve-problemsThe big challenge we face according to Dee is this question:

“How can you beat the natural flow of decreasing population health status?” His research was not all for naught. It showed us that if we provide nothing for the healthy people in a population to help them stay healthy they will become those high risk individuals with increasing health problems.

“Disruptive innovation!” is what Dee Edington is calling upon all of us in the health and wellness fields to do. We clearly need some new thinking if we are truly going to make a dent in the health problems we face. Innovate. Be bold.

Dee even chided the Holy Grail of “Evidence Based Medicine”. If you are oh-so-carefully following EBM he reasoned, “You are a follower. Be a leader!” he urged.

The outcome measures we should be shooting for are not these fearful risks, they should instead be things like “Engagement in life! Love, compassion and resiliency.”

Lifestyle medicine by it’s very nature is a form of “disruptive innovation”, as the wellness field was in it’s early years. What I now question is have we forgotten our innovative roots? In the late 1970’s when we got this wellness field moving it was indeed revolutionary. We shook up the status quo of remedial care and found more and more effective ways to look at what really influences health. Behavior. Culture. Belief. Connection.

As the years passed and every wellness program struggled for funding, and as the business model conquered the healthcare field with chilling completeness, we embraced the statistics, the algorithms, the data and, I think in many ways lost our way.

I would stand with Edington and ask us all “What is our vision of health and wellness?” What is our way forward so that we might once again embrace the whole person; mind, body, spirit and environment? We began this wellness journey almost forty years ago on the shoulders of Abraham Maslow and others who looked for ways we could help people live their best lives possible. When people are in fact on that journey to live their best possible life they are on the path of wellness. Let’s be the allies that help people find their way.

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About Michael Arloski

CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (www.realbalance.com). Real Balance has trained thousands of wellness coaches worldwide. Dr. Arloski is a board member of The National Wellness Institute, and a founding member of the executive team of The National Consortium For Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches. He is author of the leading book in the field of wellness coaching: Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed.
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