Doctor: Insurers must incentivize healthy habits

Dr. Wael Barsoum
Dr. Wael Barsoum

Bringing down booming healthcare costs will involve a proactive approach with the focus on wellness rather than illness, according to a speaker from the Cleveland Clinic, Florida, one of several presenters at last weekend’s health conference in Grand Cayman.

Dr. Wael Barsoum, president of the clinic, which treats hundreds of Caymanian patients each year, said patients would likely be required to take a more active role in managing their own health, particularly when it comes to key risk factors like smoking, obesity and blood pressure.

He said unhealthy patients who refuse to lose weight or quit smoking could eventually face higher health insurance premiums as systems seek to incentivize healthier lifestyles.

Dr. Barsoum said 40 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. were caused by behavior, such as poor eating and exercise habits.

“We have to recognize that it is a personal and social responsibility to manage our health better,” he said.

“Bringing down the cost of healthcare is going to involve more focus on wellness and healthier living. We will be moving towards proactive instead of reactive healthcare.”

He said it would prove cheaper in the long run for insurance companies and employers to fund smoking cessation programs or health coaches for patients rather than having to fund treatment of diseases caused by those factors.

The Cleveland Clinic already does this with its own staff, he said.

“You don’t charge people for being obese, you charge them for not being willing to do anything about it,” said Dr. Barsoum.

He said much more focus needed to be put by insurers, government and individuals on the value of healthy lifestyles.

“Instead of being disease orientated, you become health orientated. We are starting to see pockets of change but, by and large, we are still a reactive system.”

The connection between unhealthy habits and debilitating and expensive disease and early death is clear. According to Dr. Barsoum, consumption of sugar in the U.S. has tripled in the last 30 years, tracking with a similar spike in type 2 diabetes.

He blames bad diet advice for generations of bad eating habits which are proving hard to shake. Discredited research suggesting carbohydrates, like pasta and potatoes, were healthy, has left a legacy of poor health in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.

“When was the last time you went for a meal and you didn’t get a basket of bread? When was the last time you ordered a steak and didn’t get a huge helping of potatoes on the side? I would rather you just eat two steaks,” he said.