With four out of five Canadians having at least one modifiable risk for a chronic disease, organizations need to place the same importance and resources on improving employee health as they do on ensuring safety, a speaker told Benefits Canada’s Healthy Outcomes conference in June.

“Over the past 100 years, vaccines, clean running water and antibiotics have increased our life expectancy by more than 30 years,” said Dr. Alain Sotto, an occupational medical consultant for the Toronto Transit Commission and director of year-round care at Medcan.

“We’re living and working longer, and that means more chronic disease.”

Read: Healthy Outcomes: Alook at chronic disease among younger Canadians

During his keynote address, Sotto said it’s the baby boomers who are seeing the highest rates of chronic disease and are therefore driving drug utilization costs upward.

“Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide,” he said. “But while rates of heart disease are dropping due to new medications, Type 2 diabetes continues to rise. And that’s a concern, especially because it’s a mostly preventable condition and even reversible.”

Currently, one in four Canadians has diabetes (90 per cent of them have Type 2 diabetes) and 20 more people are diagnosed every hour of every day. Of greatest concern, however, is prediabetes, said Sotto. Six million Canadians have prediabetes or metabolic syndrome and don’t even know it. One quarter of those with prediabetes will develop diabetes within three to five years. “Diabetes is not only having an enormous impact on drug plans right now; it will have an even greater impact in the future,” said Sotto.

Read: Rising diabetes cases signal need for more workplace screening

“Diabetics are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and strokes. And people with a chronic illness are much more likely to develop depression. As employers, we need to step it up in preventing disease.”

What exactly can employers do? Studies show it’s possible to reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes by 58 per cent with two simple actions: 150 minutes of exercise a week and losing five to seven per cent of body weight. Sotto suggested organizations consider:

  • Educational programs on chronic disease and modifiable risk factors such as smoking, alcohol, obesity, poor diet and inactivity;
  • Access to exercise facilities or programs and nutritionists; and
  • Health screenings. Sotto noted that when the TTC tested 1,000 employees, it found 20 per cent of them had prediabetes.

Read: TTC hosts diabetes screening campaign for staff

Employers need to make health as important as safety, he said.

“People can’t be safe at work if they’re not healthy. Spending money on health today will reduce costs tomorrow and foster happier, healthier, more engaged and productive employees. Can we change the course of people’s health? Absolutely.”

Read more coverage from the 2017 Healthy Outcomes conference

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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