Don Fry and Dr. Leana Wen: Business and health care must be linked

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on BizJournals.com on March 11, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry, President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner

The health and welfare of employees has always been a top priority for businesses. It makes sense. Unhealthy workers are unable to be productive in the workplace, and covering health care costs continues to be a major expense for employers.

But health cuts across many other key areas of concern for the business community that are not always obvious. When we treat violence as a public health issue by employing trained violence interrupters, we are cutting unemployment while reducing crime. Placing health professionals in schools decreases absenteeism, improves educational outcomes and decreases cost of care. Promoting healthy lifestyles drives healthier workforces and promotes economic development.

Despite these shared priorities, collaborations between health and business are not common enough. As leaders in our respective fields, we want to highlight ways that these two sectors can partner.

First, we can deploy public health programs and services to improve employee health and well-being. Year after year, employer-based health insurance costs continue to rise. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer are the leading drivers of these costs, which are fueled by preventable risk factors of obesity, smoking and a poor diet.

The Health Department already offers a number of free smoking cessation programs and citywide healthy food access initiatives. The Greater Baltimore Committee, in turn, partners with the American Diabetes Association-Maryland Chapter on the CEOs Stopping Diabetes campaign, which promotes healthy lifestyle changes through Baltimore’s corporate leadership. By going upstream and providing additional points of collaboration such as increased substance addiction and mental health services for employees, health and business can improve lives while cutting long-term health care costs.

Second, public health can advise companies on emerging health concerns that impact employees and clients. This year, in response to data indicating increased use of dangerous synthetic drugs, the Health Department and local businesses worked together to implement a citywide ban. Additionally, as the Zika virus has catapulted into the national spotlight, business leaders can turn to the Health Department for travel guidance and information on how to prepare for a potential public health emergency.

Third, businesses can leverage the invaluable role they play in communities by creating momentum for critical health priorities while supporting the development of public health solutions. We’ve done it before. In response to Baltimore City’s high infant mortality rate, B’More for Healthy Babies brought together over 150 public and private partners to reduce Baltimore’s infant mortality rate by an unprecedented 28 percent and close the disparity between black and white infant deaths by almost 40 percent. The program has also resulted in a 36 percent decline in teen birth rates.

From Fit NOLA in New Orleans to New York City’s Fund for Public Health, public-private partnerships focused on health are gaining momentum across the country. Here in Baltimore, there is enormous potential to build additional cross-sectorial partnerships and leverage the expertise that business brings to the table. We can work together to expand resources and support to health programs, conduct economic analyses for shared priorities, develop a business case for health investment, and implement public health marketing campaigns. Baltimore businesses can make corporate social responsibility relevant to workers and communities.

Although public health and business spring from different disciplines, our approach is the same: evaluating gaps and problems, diagnosing the underlying issues and taking quick action. The Health Department adopts a fiercely entrepreneurial approach to our work. We are eager to engage with local business leaders to hear their ideas on the best areas for collaboration and look forward to our partnership to make good health a reality for all Baltimoreans.

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