Integrative Health Gains Ground

Well-being at all levels to cut stress and improve performance is a holistic approach that is finding corporate support

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Ruthann Russo


Stress can aggravate chronic diseases, diminish job satisfaction and decrease productivity, resulting in burnout. Burnout is a concern of every organization and particularly those with high levels of crisis response and uncertainty. 

There’s no better place to study this issue than a doctor’s office.

Some 54% of US physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, up from 46% in 2011, according to a 2015 study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

One way to combat stress and burnout is by creating and implementing an integrative health skills program.

Individuals who participate in a typical skills program form a core component of the ecosystem that supports each of the group’s members in the learning and change management process. Participants may be the patients in a healthcare system, employees in a firm, or even a handful of family members. 

A mind-body medicine tool-box goes beyond conventional medicine to encompass the broader range of mental, emotional, social, spiritual and physical well-being.

Here, again, health professionals may be canaries in the coal mine. Physicians’ satisfaction with work-life balance is on the decline. 

“Burnout appears to impact the quality of care physicians provide and physician turnover, which have profound implications for the quality of the healthcare delivery system,” concluded the study, led by Dr. Tait Shanafelt, an expert who will be Stanford Medicine’s first chief wellness officer.

Integrative health skills groups are grounded in evidence-informed practices such as self-efficacy and behavioral changes that yield sustainable results. For instance, breathing exercises help to shake off the cares of the day.

Research at Massachusetts General Hospital demonstrated that individuals who engage in integrative health skills groups are likely to need about 50% fewer healthcare interventions than similar individuals who do not participate. In a study at a Fortune 100 firm, BRG found that 95% of employees who participated in an integrative health program felt they would take better care of themselves thanks to the skills they learned.  

It may sound surprising that practitioners of conventional medicine are receptive. The goal is to anchor participants in a broader appreciation of, and responsibility for, their health and well-being. 

“It is not an either/or—it is a both/and,” says Lori Knutson, administrative director of Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine in New Jersey, which offers comprehensive health and wellness programs. “The focus is on helping individuals understand how to access the body’s innate capacity for healing and health.”

The emphasis on skills ranging from meditation and acupressure to reflective journaling and mindful eating gives every individual a toolset that can adapt to her or his own needs.

In one case, these skills helped an epilepsy sufferer overcome years of recurrent, uncontrollable seizures, discontinue most medications and reduce out-of-pocket annual healthcare expenses.   

Employers are affected in a number of ways. Productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost US employers $226 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2015. Not all costs are quantifiable: Consider the lost output of “presenteeism”—employees who come to work despite sickness, out of fear or commitment, but who do not perform at their best. 

Chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, tobacco abuse and obesity account for more than 80% of annual US healthcare spending.

“The costs are financial, environmental, social, generational and, of course, human and personal,” Knutson says. 

Increasingly, healthcare systems are recognizing the utility of integrative programs. When implemented at the level of healthcare staff, the idea is to create a trickle-down effect. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers can instruct and coach patients on these skills, creating a virtuous circle of improved health outcomes, quality of life and even occupational performance.

Beyond subjective assessments, data points to a decreased use of healthcare services for individuals who develop and use these skills. A greater focus on screening and early treatment will result in a more profitable healthcare system with healthier, happier patients.


Ruthann Russo is a BRG managing director with the firm’s clinical economics practice in Baltimore. She has worked with NYU Langone Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

 
In a study at a Fortune 100 firm, BRG found that 95% of employees who participated in integrative health skills groups felt they would take better care of themselves.
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