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  • What is OEM?

  • The Value of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 

    Keeping America’s Workforce Healthy 

    As the nation’s workplaces become more complex, physicians who practice occupational and environmental medicine play an increasingly visible role in preventing diseases and promoting wellness among workers.

    The health of America’s workforce is a central factor in the nation’s overall prosperity, stability and security. More than 130 million Americans spend most of their waking hours either at the workplace or in some way connected to it. Their health status determines everything from our national productivity on the global stage to the long-term stability of programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

    As the workplace has evolved and changed in recent decades, employers increasingly have begun making the connection between good health and the overall success of their enterprises.  In this environment, the demand for physicians trained in understanding the complex interplay of factors that affect worker health has grown significantly.

    The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) is the nation’s largest organization representing the voice of the nation’s physicians who practice occupational and environmental medicine (OEM).

    What does an occupational and environmental medicine physician do?


    As highly trained specialists, OEM physicians enhance the health of workers through preventive medicine, clinical care, disability management, research, and education

    How do OEM physicians impact workforce health?

    In the early days of occupational medicine, physicians specializing in the health of employees were primarily reactive to the injuries and exposures that occurred in the workplace. Workers who became sick or were injured came to the worksite clinic; the physician’s focus was not on prevention or the overall health and wellness of the worker or workplace, but on treating the injured employee. 

    Now the role of the OEM physician has changed significantly. As disease prevention and wellness have become a greater part of the healthcare equation, occupational and environmental medicine has expanded its scope and presence accordingly, contributing scientific research, new clinical guidelines for medical care, and public health programming aimed at the workforce and the health of the environment.  

    Occupational physicians have become the nation’s leading experts in the complex interplay of factors that affect health in the workplace, helping organizations of all kinds ensure the health of their employees.

    They have developed expertise in determining the ability of employees to perform work; the arrangements of work, the physical, chemical, biological, and social environments of the workplace, and the health outcomes of environmental exposures. They recognize that work and the environment in which it is performed can have favorable or adverse effects upon the health of workers as well as upon the communities in which they live; that the nature or circumstances of work can be arranged to protect worker health; and that health and well-being at the workplace are promoted when workers' physical attributes or limitations are accommodated in job placement. They are skilled at using the tools of preventive medicine (primary, secondary and tertiary) to improve the health of a defined population of workers and their families, and they are trained in the complex Return-to-Work process, an advanced system of health monitoring that optimizes the time in which ill or injured workers can safely return to work.

    Perhaps most importantly, occupational physicians occupy a critical position at the center of virtually all health-related transactional activities in the workplace. Occupational physicians serve as an important liaison between employer, employee, government, and all components of the health care system – understanding the needs and challenges of each of these diverse groups. They provide a unique bridge between the clinical/scientific medical community and the business-based employer community as advocates for health promotion and health protection. They represent the single part of the workplace health infrastructure that is often connected with virtually all of the other parts – senior management; benefits and human resources; legal; worker’s compensation; government regulatory agencies; labor and unions, hospitals and public health organizations.

    Why are OEM physicians needed for the workplace?

    America faces dramatic demographic shifts, including an aging workforce and a worrisome rise in the incidence of chronic disease among all age groups. With these trends, the vital connection between work, environment, and health will become even more important. A new urgency drives our need for a healthy workforce. 

    At the same time, the American workplace itself is changing – becoming ever more complex. With emerging global markets and rapidly shifting business models, business leaders face enormous challenges that impact their ability to create healthy workplaces. 

    Never before has there been such a need for the expertise of physicians trained in workforce health.

    Statistics released in 2009  by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) show that the percentage of workers who say they are in excellent health has dropped considerably – from 34 percent in 2002 to 28 percent in 2008.

    Why? Researchers at FWI say that, in addition to the rise of chronic conditions such as obesity, the jump is due to increased uncertainty related to the economy and growing difficulty among workers in balancing work and family life.

    Employers are becoming much more conscious of the need to address these issues. An annual survey from the management consulting firm, Towers Perrin, indicates that a growing number of companies are taking active steps in monitoring the health of their employees. Towers Perrin reports that while 4 percent of U.S. employers are using remote biometric reporting to assess the vital signs of their employees, this number is expected to grow to 20 percent by 2012. A variety of tools are being developed by employers aimed at keeping employees healthy – from health risk assessments to wellness classes and disease management programs.

    There are practical reasons why focusing on worker health is a good idea for employers: Statistics show that for every dollar spent on wellness, employers get a return on investment ranging from $2 to $5 – mostly seen in reduced absenteeism and medical costs, along with increased productivity.  Employee health can actually become a competitive advantage for companies, who find that healthier employees add measurably to productivity.

    In this new environment, the nation’s occupational physicians and the organization that represents them, ACOEM, play a unique and critically needed role. The knowledge, skill and advocacy of occupational physicians will play a crucial role in forming policy and implementing successful strategies as the nation’s employers continue on this path.