LEEDS – It happens to each of us on a daily basis. We adjust our actions to successfully navigate risks.

For example, as you drive down a road going 55 mph and see a warning sign of a hazard ahead — a sharp curve with a 20-mph posted speed — you are faced with a basic choice: Maintain your speed and ignore the warning, putting yourself at risk of injury, or lower your speed and successfully navigate the hazard.

Every day, we see and react to potential hazards in order to reduce the risk of accident or injury. The question is why don’t we take more seriously our “hazard ahead” health warnings.

Imagine that instead of driving a car, we are on the road of life and there are warning signs for health hazards ahead. The signs read, “Caution: Diabetes Ahead” or “Excessive Waist Limit: Risk of Heart Attack.” Would we adjust our habits to avoid the bad health outcome?

The difference, of course, is the immediacy of the situation. If you don’t slow down ahead of a sharp curve, you could go off the road within seconds.

For most health warnings, there are literally years between the warning and the possible bad outcome.

That’s not to say that the health warning is any less accurate than the sharp curve sign, it just takes longer to experience the consequences of ignoring the warning.

We now know with the benefit of years of medical research on lifestyles and disease that certain key behaviors put our health at risk.

If you smoke, your chances of getting heart or lung disease and a host of other serious illnesses increases dramatically.

We know that if we carry excess weight around the waist, our risk of heart disease and diabetes increases dramatically.

In fact, the CDC estimates that more than 50 percent of chronic diseases (heart and lung disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, some cancers, etc.) are entirely preventable with lifestyle changes.

There’s a lot of frustration about health care and health insurance in our country these days. Many Maine businesses are struggling to maintain health insurance as a benefit for their employees.

As a medical doctor and small-business owner myself, I am frustrated by how often warning signs about health are ignored.

Rather than take corrective action to avoid a bad health outcome while there is time, I see people blindly hoping to beat the odds. It’s like taking that 20 mph curve at 55 mph, hoping for the best.

Despite ever-rising health care costs, I do see a change occurring away from reactive care to a new model of proactive/preventive care.

Businesses are beginning to realize that the best way to control costs is to understand and change the underlying factors that contribute to poor health. It is becoming increasingly clear that prevention (wellness), early detection and chronic disease management are the only viable solutions to our health care cost crisis.

A recent comparison of two very similar companies underscored the value of wellness as an effective strategy to control costs.

The first company has had a wellness program in place for more than 10 years. The second company, very similar in size and makeup, has just started its wellness program after years of debilitating insurance premium increases.

The first company’s total dollar spending on coronary heart disease is less than half that of the second company.

Even more impressive is that total spending for three expensive medical conditions — renal function failure, hypertension and diabetes — totals $1.6 million annually, yet these conditions don’t even make the top 10 spending list for the company that has had a wellness program in place for 10 years.

Small changes to lower at-risk health behaviors can add up to big savings over time while helping the government avoid driving our health care system into the financial ditch.

More importantly, reducing at-risk health behaviors leads to longer, more satisfying lives with less suffering from chronic disease. It’s time we paid attention to these health hazard signs.


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