Dec. 14, 1999 (Atlanta) -- In the United States, obesity has become somewhat of an epidemic, leading to an increase in death and disease. But a report from a survey of health plan members indicates that while overweight people do incur higher annual medical care costs, they are also more willing to improve their health by discussing ways to improve their health and reduce their risks. Experts say the findings, published in the November issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, suggest that health improvement programs are likely to have a positive economic impact.
Researchers surveyed more than 8,800 employees enrolled in worksite health programs sponsored by a HealthPartners, a nonprofit, managed care company. The telephone questionnaires focused on subjects' height/weight ratio or body mass index, level of physical fitness, and willingness to talk about health improvement as well as information on their personal medical history. Additionally, each subject's annual medical costs were calculated retrospectively for up to 3 years.
The data showed that obese people with low levels of physical fitness incurred higher medical costs but were willing to discuss ways to improve their health. Willingness to communicate also was strongly associated with a readiness to change their unhealthy behaviors. The lead researcher says that the findings are likely to affect both economic and health outcomes.
"We found that high users of medical resources are willing to learn about ways to improve their health and reduce their risk," says Nicolaas P. Pronk, PhD. "The findings present economically sound rationale for health plans to offer health improvement programs." Pronk, who is the senior director of HealthPartners Center for Health Promotion in Minneapolis, says the findings build on what is already known about obesity.
"Obesity has long been associated with [heart] disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, osteoarthritis, and some cancers," says Judith Stern, ScD, RD, a professor of nutrition at the University of California and past president of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. "Studies have also shown that obesity is associated with increased medical costs. And recently, the cost to treat obesity and all its [related diseases] was estimated at $103 billion a year in the United States alone." These findings are of the utmost concern to managed care experts.
"It's very clear that obesity is a leading factor in morbidity [disease] and mortality [death]. And any efforts aimed at decreasing morbidity and mortality are likely to offset costs, especially in light of recent reports that half of all Americans are overweight," says Donald White. "So obesity is of the utmost concern to our member organizations, and similar studies are underway at leading research centers." Despite these efforts, White, who is a spokesperson for the American Association of Health Care Plans, says there's still a way to go.
"When it comes to nutrition and disease prevention, we've really come a long way in a short time, and HealthPartners has played an important role in lifestyle research," says White. "But a lot more research is needed -- and not just for controlling costs but for enhancing our quality of life as well." HealthPartners' findings were recently replicated in a follow-up study.
"The follow-up showed that obesity and low levels of fitness had the same effect on costs in a more controlled study," says Pronk. "Now that we're sure the data is valid and reliable, our next step is to develop and implement programs that support healthy lifestyle choices and behavior change."
The study was funded by HealthPartners.
- Obese people with low levels of fitness are more willing to communicate about improving their health, which is associated with readiness to change behavior.
- Studies show that these patients incur higher costs in managed health care plans.
- Researchers believe health plans could improve economic and health outcomes if they were to implement health improvement programs.