Chronic issues Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

While it may already be too late for baby boomers to take preventive steps to avoid painful chronic diseases, there is still plenty of time to encourage the next generation to avoid health care mistakes.

“The main thing we can do about today’s chronic conditions is to lessen the pain,” says Tim Stover, M.D., senior vice president of the Akron General Health System.

Stover strongly advises younger generations to take the right steps today for wellness and prevention to avoid the painful issues they could face tomorrow. Chronic disease prevention and management programs should be a critical component of anyone’s wellness program, he adds.

“We didn’t know so much about front-end prevention and wellness back then,” Stover says. “But, today, we do have good wellness programs that can help younger generations avoid the same situations.”

Smart Business spoke with Stover about chronic conditions and how chronic disease prevention and management programs can help you and your employees, now and in the future.

What are chronic diseases?

These are things that will probably not kill you but will be with you for the rest of your life. We are talking about issues like diabetes, heart disease, the rheumatoid complex and autoimmune system diseases. All chronic diseases cause pain and discomfort. Chronic illness defines those disease processes that patients will have for the remainder of their lives. Many will have more than one. These co-morbidities include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and congestive heart failure. When any one of these requires acute hospitalization, the other issues always add a potential for complications.

What can individuals over 50 do about their situations now?

Health care today is not about health care, it’s about sick care, and we are headed for the perfect storm of sick care. Older individuals will demand more care resources, but there will be a scarcity of primary care physicians and a Medicare program that will be insolvent. With Health Savings Accounts becoming more popular today, patients are paying higher co-pays or deductibles out-of-pocket. Paying for these chronic conditions will be a hardship for many. But, even if you’re over 50, it is not too late to change your choices. The problem is, many of us don’t do this until we have that ‘fox-hole’ experience — the heart attack, the stroke, getting adult onset diabetes, an auto accident; then we decide to change what we’ve been doing.

A wellness program helps you make those choices before the fox-hole event hits. Simple everyday things such as eating healthy and exercising will make a difference. These things are not difficult or expensive — but actually doing them is another thing altogether. Besides being generally good for you, exercise is a well-documented treatment for many ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, mild congestive heart failure, post heart attack and stroke, joint disease, chronic back pain and headaches.

For each age group, will wellness programs help avoid problems?

Many of these chronic problems could have been prevented by better lifestyle choices. Five choices are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of chronic health care expenditures today — smoking, alcohol, obesity, driving fast and lack of exercise. These are choices we, as a society, make every day. Health care should be exactly that, health care. Do what you can to stay out of hospitals — wellness is free.

How do you push wellness to the younger generations?

It is important for people to inform their children of their medical histories, so the children are aware of the possible conditions that they may face. And, show them that wellness is important to you. Once you start making the changes and it becomes part of your lifestyle, your children will listen. Advise any younger person that there are many things that he or she could be doing now that could prevent osteoporosis and other chronic diseases. Tell younger people to think of one of their relatives who has had that fox-hole experience, and then ask that person how he or she got there. Except for accidents, congenital illnesses and some cancers, there was a choice that put that person in the condition he or she is dealing with now. Most people recognize that fact.

There will always be illnesses that can’t be avoided, but many patients do not realize how much of their futures are in their hands. This is why I think the message for wellness has never be more important to the younger generation — if the patient is now responsible for paying for the result of poor lifestyle choices, and we know staying as well as we can is cheaper, which would most choose? I think most people would choose wellness. But as long as someone else pays for our bad choices, what incentive is there to stay well?

TIM STOVER, M.D. is the senior vice president of the Akron General Health System and the medical director of Akron General’s Health and Wellness Centers. Reach him at tstover@agmc.org.