Perspectives on 2012: Health Problems Will Increasingly Become Operational Ones

This article is the second in a short series of musings about 2012, its opportunities and challenges, and how to best meet them.

Healthcare has been one of the most widely debated topics of the last several years. What I find interesting is that most of the debate has centered around — and I think been largely driven by — healthcare legislation rather than health. Google Trends (a good research tool and also a fantastically potent time sink) shows that interest in “healthcare” peaked in March 2010, coinciding with the passage of the healthcare reform bill. Interest has tapered off a bit since then, but I’m sure healthcare will return to the national stage as the presidential race picks up speed. 

But what about our focus on health? Ironically, the more important question of “how to help people live healthier lives” has been largely obscured by debate on “what to do about healthcare.” I’m not sure whether this says more about our tendency to get sucked into political theater or our reluctance to focus on root causes. Or perhaps it just speaks to the difficulty in tackling what seem to be insurmountable problems. 

What I am sure is that this is a shame, because the imperative to help each other (and ourselves) live healthier has never been more pressing. While the last twenty years have brought progress on many fronts, from reductions in smoking to premature death to infant mortality, during the same time frame there has been a 137% increase in what is now one of our country’s top health problems: obesity. (See the bottom of this article for full references, including a link to the enlightening and sobering America’s Health Rankings site from the United Health Foundation.) 

This is notable for two reasons. The first, of course, is that obesity and its resultant health complications, such as diabetes and heart disease, are hugely urgent health issues. One in three American adults is considered obese, and according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Preventable Medicine, the overall health burden of obesity now outweighs the health burden of smoking. 

The second reason is only starting to become apparent. Obesity is beginning to impact operational decisions throughout our landscape, sometimes literally. Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about the Coast Guard’s decision to change regulations regarding average weight. In short, in response to the rising prevalence of obesity the USCG has raised its Assumed Average Weight Per Person from 160 pounds to 185 pounds. This means, among other things, that ferries, cruise ships, and even recreational boaters will face new restrictions on the number of passengers they can carry.

“Who cares?” you say. “I don’t own a boat.” Well, neither do I. But this is one example of how our country’s deteriorating health — and its increasing waistline — are going to become issues of not only health but of operations, marketing, finance, legality, and customer service. Are our organizations prepared for that? Is our infrastructure ready? How about our attitudes?

The worst part is that obesity, like smoking, is preventable. That’s not to say “easily preventable” — far from it. Anyone who has ever tried to lose five pounds can hopefully only empathize with someone trying to lose 20, let alone 50 or 100. Losing weight takes incredible determination and support, which means that over the coming year we’ve got to make progress towards extending and democratizing the tools to fight obesity. It is a problem that literally remakes people; in 2012 it will increasingly become a dynamic that remakes our country.

Add to this the growing problems of stress, mental illness, depression, and sleep deprivation, and you have quite a handful of work for us to tackle. 

For a start, we’ll need as much discussion about “health” as we’ve had about “healthcare.” What can each of us do today to improve the health of all of our stakeholders?