Milken Institute: How employers can change the paradigm for obesity care

Employers are in a strong position to lead the charge in changing the conversation around obesity care, according to a new report from the Milken Institute.

The group released a how-to guide employers of all sizes can use to push for obesity to be recognized as a chronic condition, driving a more multifaceted model for care and addressing the stigma that exists around weight.

The guidebook notes that obesity and conditions related to it are having a major impact on healthcare costs, accounting for $425.5 billion in costs for the civilian workforce, according to a recent study. This includes higher medical costs for both employers and employees as well as costs related to absenteeism.

Sarah Wells Kocsis, director of the Center for Public Health at the Milken Institute and one of the paper's authors, told Fierce Healthcare that employers are starting to take notice of this issue and lead a conversation that's "decades in the making."

"We're really at an inflection point," she said. "Our goal here is to put this in writing and explain what a strong case there is to think about obesity as a chronic disease."

Employers have historically invested in programs that encourage diet and exercise as the best ways to address obesity, according to the report. But given that obesity rates continue to rise, it's becoming more critical that they invest in a comprehensive strategy that addresses multiple key avenues including medication therapy, behavioral health and prevention.

The guidebook identifies four areas where employers have the greatest opportunity to make a difference: education, culture change, strategic benefit design and public policy.

Wells Kocsis said there isn't a one-size-fits-all model given how widely employers can vary in size, but it's important for firms of any size to align the approach from the top.

"I think that's why it's so important that the C-suite, HR leaders are really sort of embracing the need to have whole-person approaches for their workforce," she said.

The guide includes multiple suggested actions employers can take in enhancing obesity care. In improving education, for example, a response can begin with making employees more aware of resources they have access to and implementing training programs with a focus on obesity. Educational initiatives can also be designed to combat stigmas around obesity and being overweight.

Employers can collaborate with national organizations such as the Obesity Action Coalition, the STOP Obesity Alliance, the Obesity Medicine Association and the Obesity Society in this effort, according to the report.

Addressing stigma also bleeds into culture change, according to the report. Employers can build a "culture of health and wellbeing" by being empathetic from the top down and offering workers the flexibility necessary to manage their health.

"We need employers to seriously look at and lean into these four areas, because they've really opened kind of the gateway to meaningful change," Wells Kocsis said.