Millennials are at a crossroad; they can follow their parents into a lifetime of chronic diseases, fueled in large part by being overweight and obese and the associated diseases that go with these conditions, or they can chart a healthier course. With a little bit of effort, they can become the generation that breaks the obesity and chronic disease cycle.
And, as health care providers, we must do everything we can to help them make the right choice now. Achieving this goal matters because millennials following in the footsteps of predecessor generations means continuing high costs for health care in the U.S. and a lower quality of life for all.
According to data from the 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, obesity rates are highest among middle-aged adults (41 percent), followed by Baby Boomers (38 percent) and millennials (34 percent). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2012, said about half of all adults suffered from one or more chronic health conditions — such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Unless millennials want to become a negative health statistic, something must be done.
Making the right choice is not so difficult. Healthy eating, daily exercise and not smoking are the three behaviors that will largely determine their long-term health.
If we can persuade young adults to exercise for as little as five minutes a day, according to the American College of Cardiology, they can extend their life expectancy. If they would eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, read more and walk more, they could add years to their lives. These simple steps could help them avoid, or at least delay, the onset of chronic diseases that lead to most of the hospitalizations in this country.
These are messages that our public health experts have supported and promoted for years, without enough success. Given what we know, it seems these messages are falling on deaf ears with millennials too.
According to a recent study we commissioned, millennials believe they do not have enough time to take care of their health, yet they spend several hours a day in front of computers, watching TV or using their phones. Clearly, there is a disconnect here that must be addressed. We must find a way to get them to put their screens down, and get their feet on the ground.
Education alone is not the issue. Most millennials know they should do these things. The challenge is how to get through to them. How do we help them understand that, in fact, they do have enough time every day to invest in their long-term health?
Our survey tells us doctors have a critical role to play. Surprisingly, millennials are going old school when it comes to health and medical advice. Like their parents, they are increasingly relying on old-fashioned conversations with doctors and nurses for information, instead of the internet and social media.
This is a very important insight because we now know we have an avenue to reach these young adults with healthy lifestyle information. We also know they rely on cell phones and computers for day-to-day communication, so it’s our job as medical professionals to use these tools to connect with millennials.
At Novant, this means we are aggressively leveraging our electronic health records platform to go beyond scheduling issues, to having conversations with our patients. For example, since 2012, when we switched over to a new electronic health records system, MyChart, we have seen our online interactions skyrocket. Today more than 650,000 of our patients communicate and share information with their doctors through our e-patient record system. In 2015, we averaged more than 4,500 new MyChart enrollments each month. Specifically, we are using virtual visits to engage with our patients both old and young, logging over 12,000 e-visits to date. Over the past year, 4.8 million results have been released over MyChart, resulting in cost savings of $14.8 million. And we are proud to count among our more than 650,000 users 54 over the age of 100.
But for millennials we need to do more — especially since more than 60 percent of MyChart users are millennials. We must meet them on their device of choice, be where they are online and engage with them about how to lead a healthier life. As we evolve as a health system, doctors must be at the forefront of this effort, engaging with patients in the way they want to get information and from who they want to hear it. For example, we are beginning to use text messaging for appointment reminders and clinic operating status. But we can’t be alone in this, other health systems must also engage.
From a public policy position, this is important because chronic disease remains the number one health care cost driver in the U.S. According to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, 86 percent of the cost of health care in America is associated with chronic disease — in 2011 $2.3 trillion out of $2.7 trillion spent on health care was related to chronic disease. If we are able to bend this cost curve even slightly and lower the 86 percent even 5 or 10 percentage points, billions of dollars in annual savings would ultimately mean fewer costs for patients, governments, corporations and the system overall. Lowering the impact of chronic disease also means increasing productivity in this country. According to the CDC productivity losses for diabetes alone amounted to $69 billion in 2012.
With the overall goal of increasingly quality and lowering costs, this is a big part of meeting this goal. By preventing the onset of chronic disease, often as a result of being overweight or obese, we not only can lower our health care costs but we can improve the quality of life for both individuals but also society.
This is an important public health focus. The health care community must come together to tackle this because failure means the millennials will follow in their parent’s footsteps and in all likelihood suffer from the deadly chronic disease of high obesity rates, type 2 diabetes, heart problems, strokes, arthritis and depression.
Failure means health care costs will continue to skyrocket, eating up a greater and greater portion of our national budget.
While it may be too late to change the trajectory of the Baby Boomers, it’s not too late for millennials. The time to act is now.
Jesse Cureton is the chief consumer officer for Novant Health, an integrated system of physician practices, hospitals and outpatient centers operating in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.
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