The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report in February analyzing the latest trends in obesity internationally, with grim (albeit unsurprising) results: the United States is officially the fattest country of all OECD member countries. U.S. childhood obesity rates are higher than any other country in the OECD – 40 percent of American children are overweight. That’s over one in three kids. And for adults, the prognosis is far, far worse: the OECD projects that based on current rates, by 2020, 75 percent of U.S. adults will be overweight or obese. That is a staggering three out of four adults.
Let’s take a moment to consider that statistic and its significance. Independent research demonstrates that ailments associated with obesity are a prime factor in skyrocketing health care costs. Health expenditures for people whose weight falls into the “obese” category are, on average, 25% higher than for others. With this knowledge, it’s not hard to see how some predictions estimate that by 2018, the price of health care for all obesity-related ailments in the U.S. will be $344 billion.
While the statistics and research confirm that obesity is indeed a public health crisis, there are a heartening number of initiatives, campaigns, and programs aimed at addressing the challenges of reducing obesity. Ideally, we should aim at preventing obesity-related health problems in the first place, by addressing the problem early on – that is, by tackling childhood obesity. Effectively reducing pediatric obesity requires a multi-faceted approach: one that incorporates comprehensive strategies involving communities, health care providers, and individuals.
ACHP organizations, as community-based nonprofit providers, are acutely aware of the necessity of building and maintaining healthy lifestyles from an early age, in order to prevent pediatric obesity. Over the past several years, ACHP plans have developed dozens of innovative, local programs that support healthy and active lifestyles. These initiatives integrate a variety of resources and approaches, including research-driven pilot projects, community engagement events, and clinical programs developed collaboratively with providers.
UCare in Minnesota, along with Group Health Cooperative Seattle, Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, CareOregon, and many other health plans have developed programs designed to increase the accessibility of healthy food to children and educate them on nutrition and portion size. HEALTHY Armstrong (Healthy Eating Active Lifestyles Together Helping Youth), a partnership between the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health Plan and community organizations, focuses on educating children and their families through these community partnerships. This highly collaborative model utilizes principles of a program developed by the National Institutes of Health, and was recognized in the Health Communities Act of 2009 as a model for community organizations to emulate.
Other ACHP member plans have initiatives focused on engaging parents and families, such as Kaiser Permanente Georgia’s Operation Zero (OZ), a family-based program that involves dieticians and fitness specialists. OZ incorporates rubrics of progress in order to help set goals and keep track of improvements. Minnesota’s HealthPartners FiiT Kids Program is a collaboration with providers, initiated through pediatrician referrals, and encourages the entire family to participate in healthy behaviors. 5210 Screening, a program developed by Martin’s Point Healthcare in Portland, Maine, screens members in a clinical setting, in order to help pediatricians and parents make more informed decisions regarding a child’s health.
While the issue of pediatric obesity increasingly garners national recognition as a critical problem demanding immediate attention, it is up to all of us – communities, providers, and families – to look for effective solutions and preventive measures. ACHP member plans take this responsibility to heart; they are, after all, an integral part of their communities. Their comprehensive approaches offer inspiration on how health plans can play a prominent role in public health. In order to foster systemic change and to slow (and perhaps even reverse) the alarming trends in obesity, we all need to be invested in the health of our communities. And with so many local and engaged health plans focused on exactly that, the outlook may not be quite so grim.