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  • Healthy Workforce Now

  • Bringing Good Health to the Workplace

    The critical role for occupational physicians in healthcare reform

    With health care costs skyrocketing, new pressures at virtually every level of the health care system, and a new administration in Washington, D.C., health care reform is once again near the top of the nation’s priorities.

    While many of the dimensions of the health care reform debate have remained unchanged over the last decade, a new element has begun to emerge recently and is gaining momentum: the idea that the workplace should become a greater focal point of the nation’s health-policy initiatives.

    Policy-makers are recognizing that America’s workplace provides a high-yield setting for initiatives that could impact the health of millions of citizens. At the same time, employers are increasingly making the connection between good health and enhanced productivity and are creating innovative programs to leverage this connection.

    There is growing consensus that proactive health measures in the workplace will be necessary as the American workforce ages and begins to deal increasingly with chronic diseases. 

    Coalitions are forming, bringing a wide range of public and private organizations together in an effort to move this new paradigm of wellness and prevention in the workplace more squarely into the center of the health reform debate.

    In this new environment, the nation’s occupational physicians and the organization that represents them --  the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) – can play a unique and critically needed role.

    In the early days of occupational medicine, physicians specializing in the health of employees were primarily reactive to the injuries 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. 

    In more recent years, however, the role of the occupational physician has changed significantly. 

    As the workforce has grown in size and complexity, and as prevention and wellness have become a greater part of the healthcare equation, occupational 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. 

    Occupational physicians have become the nation’s leading experts in the complex interplay of factors that affect health in the workplace. 

    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 of other populations; 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 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. 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. Occupational physicians are a fulcrum of workplace health, serving as an important point of 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.

    In short: All of these factors will gain importance as the nation turns to the workplace as a focal point of health care reform. The knowledge, skill and advocacy of occupational physicians will play a crucial role in forming policy and implementing successful strategies.

    As the leading organization representing occupational physicians, ACOEM coalesces and advances knowledge and understanding of the complex interplay of workforce health issues – ranging from the development of clinical care guidelines to policy research. ACOEM’s peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (JOEM), is the leading publisher of scientific research aimed at workplace health. It has been a particularly strong proponent of advanced research in the area of workplace health and productivity, making this one of its key points of advocacy over the last several years.

    In 2008, ACOEM launched a major Health and Productivity initiative, including hosting the first-ever national summit meeting on health and productivity, expanding its Health and Productivity Management Center and publishing major studies and policy papers in JOEM. A key part of this initiative will be the promotion of research that helps employers accurately measure the connection between health, productivity and their bottom line, while providing resources to help them develop wellness and prevention programs for their workers.