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What Is an Ounce of Prevention Worth?

by Rick Blizzard, D.B.A.
Healthcare Editor

In 2000, the state of New Jersey passed a Health Wellness Promotion Act that requires insurers to cover annual wellness exams for everyone who has health insurance. Believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, the law is evidence of a growing awareness of the benefits of preventative healthcare. Regular checkups and the avoidance of behaviors that may lead to health problems are keys to preventing them. Doctors must also educate their patients about the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.

Are Americans Visiting the Doctor?

The Gallup "Health of the Nation" survey*, conducted in April 2001, found that a surprisingly high percentage of Americans visit the doctor regularly. More than eight in 10 adults (84%) reported seeing a physician during the past year for a checkup. Women are more likely than men to report having seen a physician, by a margin of 90% to 77%. (For additional discussion on men and preventative healthcare, see Cancer Care: Do Men Still Lag?)

What Happens at the Doctor's Office?

Regular physician checkups are the first step for a patient who seeks to establish a preventative health program, but true preventative healthcare cannot occur unless the physician educates the patient about how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Do physicians discuss preventative healthcare practices during checkup visits?

As illustrated in the chart at the top of the page, of those who visited their doctor for a checkup in the past year, a majority (60%) reported that their doctor talked to them about keeping physically fit. Half (51%) spoke with their doctor about maintaining proper body weight, and 50% talked about nutrition and good eating habits.

Just over a third of respondents (36%) said their doctor talked to them about getting adequate sleep. Fewer than three in 10 respondents (28%) said their physician discussed the risks associated with smoking; a similar percentage of the total sample (26%) reported having smoked in the past 30 days.

One in five respondents (21%) reported that their doctor talked to them about safe sex. One in eight (14%) discussed the risks associated with alcohol abuse.

Key Points

Although a large majority of Americans visit the doctor's office at least once a year, much smaller percentages discuss preventative healthcare practices during these visits. Only 60% of those who visit the doctor report discussing physical fitness during the visit, and fewer than one in three report discussing the three major controllable behaviors for prevention -- smoking, safe sex and alcohol abuse. Even patients who are not currently engaging in these adverse behaviors could benefit from reminders of the importance of continuing to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Gallup survey data indicate that in order to create a healthier society, physicians should focus greater attention on wellness and preventative behaviors during office visits.

Ben Klima contributed to this article.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 11-29, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.


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