Why Companies Should Make Health Disparities Their Business

June 29, 2018

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Health learning tour
National Health Foundation's Kelly Bruno speaks at U.S. Chamber Foundation's 2018 Health Learning Tour. Alongside her are (left to right) Nicolla Ross, American Heart Association and Clare Fox, Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

As the population grows more diverse and medical costs soar, the greater burdens of health risks, disease, and premature death among people of color and the poor are a matter of increasing urgency.

If we want to close the gap, we must address how the social determinants of health, such as the availability of affordable housing, access to healthy foods, and convenience of green space to exercise, keep millions from reaching their optimal well-being. Where we live, learn, work, and play matters just as much to our physical health, if not more, than our genes and lifestyle choices. 

Reducing health disparities is not a domain reserved for nonprofits, philanthropists, and social scientists. It’s just as much an economic issue as it is a social justice one, which is why the private sector is increasingly making it a priority. Here are three reasons why your business should care.

Improving employees’ health improves the bottom line.

Because minority employees suffer from more health problems than others and typically have access to fewer quality services, employers recognize they need to do more to ensure health equity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms chronic illness leads to more sick days and lower productivity. Absenteeism costs associated with hypertension, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity—the most common, costly and preventable health problems—are greater than $2 billion per condition per year. Productivity losses from employees who miss work cost over $225 billion annually. So it comes as no surprise that healthy employees are cheaper employees.

More firms are promoting prevention as part of an overall wellness strategy and taking into account employees’ social and cultural environments when designing health initiatives, acknowledging the investment not only saves lives, but boosts morale, reduces absenteeism and lessens stress, in addition to serving as important recruitment and retention tools. Corporate wellness programs that run the gamut from health screenings and flu shots to smoking cessation programs and weight-loss challenges can reach all socioeconomic levels and have proven effective at keeping healthcare costs in check. Research suggests that for every dollar spent in worksite wellness programs, employers preserve three dollars in healthcare savings and three dollars in reduced absenteeism cost.

By investing in employees both directly, through support for healthy decision-making, and indirectly, by improving the conditions in which they live, work and play, employers can play a vital role in building a strong foundation for health.

What is good for the community is good for business.

While many companies invest in keeping their employees healthy, few acknowledge the link between healthy businesses and healthy communities. Businesses that invest in the health and well-being of the community cultivate a healthy, more productive workforce to fuel future economic growth; attract more talented employees and a healthier customer base; benefit their reputations; and encourage consumer and employee loyalty.

Firms are tapping into their resources and forming inventive partnerships to improve community conditions for health resulting in clean air laws, access to healthy food, safe neighborhoods and opportunities for physical activity. Hospitals are investing in affordable housing, financial institutions are offering low-cost financing to build community health centers and combat food deserts, and technology companies are consulting on digital platforms to improve data collection and information sharing.

The American Public Health Association found that collaboratively investing in community health can have significant returns. Every dollar invested in biking and walking trails can return benefits up to $11.80, and for every dollar invested in food and nutrition education, there is a $10 return in reduced healthcare costs.

Putting health first is the right thing to do.

CVS Health, the retail pharmacy company, took on smoking-related health disparities by ending the sale of tobacco products because it conflicted with the corporation’s purpose of helping people on their path to health. Smoking, the leading cause of preventable death, kills more than 480,000 annually. The tobacco industry has long targeted African-Americans and low-income individuals, who all face disproportionate burdens from tobacco-related diseases.

Despite the ban, the company’s revenues rose, and research showed that removing tobacco products helped customers stop smoking. The move led to a decrease in overall cigarette purchases. Cigarette sales dropped 1 percent in 13 states in the eight months after CVS left the tobacco market. Research also showed a four percent increase in nicotine patch purchases in those same states, indicating a positive effect on attempts to quit smoking. 

The United States spends more on healthcare than any other nation, but still ranks 27th in life expectancy. Businesses are in a unique position to improve the health of their employees and the communities they serve. Supporting initiatives that offer a pathway for improving the underlying conditions that shape health offers promise toward achieving health equity and enhancing the quality of life for all