Employers have long been focused on addressing obesity and diabetes in their workforces.
However, COVID-19 is pushing them to think about these health challenges in new ways, in particular putting a spotlight on the need to address them among populations of color. To assist in that effort, the Northeast Business Group on Health has released a new guide for employers looking to tackle obesity and diabetes through a racial lens.
"Obesity, Diabetes and Health Equity: What Employers Can Do" lays out a step-by-step approach. Key among them is embedding health outcomes within other diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Another big recommendation is to build benefits to address obesity and diabetes that are based in clinical best practices.
"It’s clearly the case that employers want to do the right thing, and they put a lot of work into DE&I efforts," Candice Sherman, CEO of the Northeast Business Group, told Fierce Healthcare. "I think that those efforts could be key in terms of surfacing some of the issues among employees in terms of obtaining the care that they need."
For one, DE&I leaders within the company likely have a level of insight into the experience of workers of color beyond that of other executives. Collaborating with them effectively can build the trust necessary to address health concerns like obesity and diabetes.
DE&I teams can also share critical information about the employee population that can drive change, according to the guide.
Rethinking benefits should start with closely reviewing coverage for weight management options, which are critical to addressing both diabetes and obesity. Some employers, for instance, may not cover weight loss surgeries while others have access to a center of excellence for these procedures.
Treatments like bariatric surgery or anti-obesity medications are significantly underutilized by the people who are most likely to benefit from them, and this is especially true among populations of color. Recent study data, for instance, suggest Black people are 46% less likely than whites to use anti-obesity medications.
Covering some treatment options and not others will lead to care gaps, according to the guide.
"Taking a look at their benefits and thinking about equitable access is important," Sherman said. "If they're not covering some of the elements of best practice treatments for obesity and diabetes, now seems like an opportune time for them to consider expanding that."
The guide also suggests thinking beyond benefits that target these conditions directly. Mental health conditions correlate with obesity, so having a well-rounded mental health benefits package could also assist in addressing diabetes and obesity in tandem.
Offering access to culturally competent behavioral health providers is a key piece of addressing equity in tandem with these conditions, the report said.
"Offering racially sensitive and culturally relevant mental health resources to your employees is not only good for their overall wellbeing but can also enhance their ability to manage health conditions like obesity and diabetes," according to the guide. "Studies have shown that patients are more satisfied with communication and have greater trust when they see racially or socially compatible clinicians."