The New Face of Health Care: Education, Improvement, Prevention
> 5/7/2007 3:29:13 PM

According to the American Psychological Association's Practice Organization, our health care industry is changing in dramatic, welcome ways: from a system strictly focused on treating and curing disease to one that recognizes the first crucial step in the health care process: encouraging citizens to lead healthy lives through awareness of lifestyle, behavior and stress factors and their incalculable influence on one's physical well-being. The theme of their recent 2007 State Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., summarized in an extensive and informative speech by Russ Newman, PhD, the APA's executive director for professional practice, was an industry-wide shift emphasizing "health over health care."

Some of the conference's observations are undeniable: the cost of treatment in this country continues to spiral out of control as the number of uninsured Americans rises to record levels. Chronic, lifestyle-related afflictions like obesity and diabetes are at all high-time highs and their influence shows no signs of dying down. Evidence of our bloated and often ineffective system includes the facts that we spend more than $100 billion each year treating the uninsured (often for problems that could have been prevented through modifications in diet and behavior) and that an estimated 100,000 Americans die every year due to mistakes made in the hospital (three times the total killed on our highways). The combined cost of treatment for obesity and diabetes, which are closely related if not outright comorbid, is nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. 

The source of a good many of our collective ills is a history of inattention paid to mental illness. Repeated studies name stress as one of the most prevalent and controllable health problems (or roots thereof) in our country, and the number of Americans treated for depression and related disorders continues to grow. These factors contribute heavily to problems like heart disease and gaps in productivity. And yet, despite endless research and the growing acceptance of the fact that mental illness is closely related to and just as damaging as physical illness, many citizens and professionals continue to dismiss mental health and its practicioners, refusing coverage and attributing its prominence to overinvolved self-analysis. But, of course, rather than a privilege or frivolity, psych treatment is a crucial element of the health package, and recent legislation has reflected that sentiment in the face of organized political and financial opposition, helping to pave the way for mental health treatment to be included in more health plans and Medicare packages. We've also had the Mental Health Parity Act all but ending industry discrimination against those with mental health needs. A move toward more expansive, preventative care for every citizen intimidates some, but it could ultimately save our country a great deal of money by working to improve quality of life and prevent or downplay future health problems. As Newman succinctly puts it:

"So long as we have a system more willing to pay for treatments than for technologies, information, and discoveries to keep people healthy, we are doomed to simply trying to fix the (problem)."

The APA has made its own efforts through public education campaigns and the Healthy Workplace Awards as well as a series of extensively publicized surveys highlighting the causal relationship between stress, problem behaviors and serious health problems. But the changes advocated by their philosophy will make for an ongoing struggle with professionals, policy-makers, and public opinion. Let's hope that increased awareness and receptiveness to these shifts will make for a healthier future where we can attack our nation's epidemics at their roots in the world of mental health.

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