Wake-up call on disabling chronic conditions

The longer we live, the more important quality of life becomes to us.

A newly released Institute of Medicine consensus report on Living Well with Chronic Illness: a Call for Public Action suggests ways government agencies could intervene to help reduce disability, improve function and enhance quality of life for chronically ill individuals at work and at home.

Chronic illness is reaching crisis proportions in the United States, and maintaining or enhancing quality of life for people with disabling conditions has not been given the attention it deserves, the report’s authors say. Chronic illness is associated with about 75 percent of the nation’s $2 trillion annual healthcare spend –a gigantic number to get your arms around.

Each of the nine conditions mentioned in the report have significant daily impacts on workforce healthcare benefit and medical costs, productivity and absenteeism rates. The independent report, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Arthritis Foundation, discusses disabilities associated with:

  • chronic pain and depression, two leading (and often misunderstood) causes of work absence;
  • vision and hearing loss, which require workplace accommodations and validate the need for personal protective equipment under certain conditions;
  • type-2 diabetes, with direct medical costs estimated at $16 billion a year and indirect costs at $58 billion (disability, work loss, premature mortality);
  • post-traumatic stress, which may be associated with workplace violence and also is a growing concern among veterans returning to the workforce;
  • arthritis, a major source of lost productive time among U.S. workers with pain exacerbations;
  • cancer, with an estimated total cost to American companies of $264 billion a year in healthcare expenses and lost productivity.
  • dementia and schizophrenia, which raise issues related to stress and costs associated with caring for elderly and mentally ill patients or family members.

    The committee of experts appointed by the Institute of Medicine to prepare the report does not recommend focusing public health attention on these specific illnesses, per se. Instead, it uses the nine conditions as examples of a wide range of conditions with common characteristics, including significant impacts on the nation’s health and economy.

    The committee defines the concept of living well as reflecting “the best achievable state of health that encompasses all dimensions of physical, mental and social well-being.” The report provides a framework for the development and implementation of strategies to reduce individual and societal burdens of chronic illness by helping people live well regardless of the nature of their health status.

    Employers shoulder a considerable percentage of the chronic illness burden. The opportunity to leverage occupational health and safety expertise in their organizations to help lighten the load and become leaders in the emerging “live well” movement is now.

    UL gives workforce health and safety professionals more of the tools they need to proactively address risks, reduce costs and keep people safe, healthy and on the job.