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October 04, 2021

Written by Jim Molis

Health and happiness are not just physical or mental. They are both.

Instead of treating only a specific disease or illness, more health care providers and insurers are focusing on restoring overall health, promoting resilience and preventing disease through a whole-person health approach to care.

“Whole health is overall health and well-being,” said Dr. Ted Conklin, vice president and chief medical officer for commercial business for Florida Blue, Florida’s local Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan. “There is no physical health without mental health and there is no mental health without physical health.”

Approaching health holistically provides broad benefits for employees and their employers, from improving well-being to reducing costs by avoiding more expensive care. “Whole health is a happy life,” Conklin said.

“Not only are healthy employees happier, but they tend to be more productive as well because they are more focused on their work,” Conklin said. In teaming with like-minded health care providers, insurers like Florida Blue are focusing on the value that whole-person care produces.

Treating patients holistically and continually

provider discussing how patient's family history may affect him

In the whole-health approach to care, providers consider a patient’s family history to help them prevent or plan for possible conditions.

Conklin describes whole-person care as a means of treating people across their care journey, from healthy to sick, and through the end-of-life. “Our goal is to do everything we can to prevent progression along that journey,” he said.

For example, in the whole-health approach to care, providers consider a patient’s family history and other social factors to help them prevent or plan for possible conditions like diabetes, depression or heart disease. Then, if a patient has an acute need, like a heart attack or pneumonia, providers will layer in support around it within the context of their overall health and lifestyle. “We want to support those individuals first and foremost through knowledge and education, so they know what they need to stay healthy and happy,” Conklin said.

If a patient develops a chronic condition, providers intervene early to prevent it from worsening, for example, by helping them manage cholesterol or hypertension to reduce the risk of chronic kidney disease, Conklin said. “Almost always, we have physical and mental health issues involved and we want to make sure they have the specialized support they need,” he said.

Patients who develop multiple chronic conditions need specialized support, such as managing separate medications for hypertension and high cholesterol, Conklin said. “We proactively identify people with multiple conditions to make sure they have access to care and are having their needs met,” he said.

“Whole-person care includes treating the mental health issues that often arise as people’s physical health worsens. Research shows that diagnosing and treating mental health conditions can improve overall health and well-being in addition to reducing medical costs,” Conklin said.

“Addressing social determinants of health, like housing and nutrition, is also part of whole-person care,” Conklin said. “COVID-19 created new disparities and highlighted other issues like health inequities, and we need to get better at this,” he said, for example, by ensuring that someone without transportation can get to their medical appointments. “If they don’t keep their appointments, they may have to go to the emergency room and be admitted to the hospital, leaving them with a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Conklin said.

Whole-person care even incorporates end-of-life issues like advanced-care plans, in which patients and providers document goals and the steps needed to achieve them if they have conditions such as severe diabetes or kidney disease. For instance, if a patient wants to spend more time with grandchildren or to travel, providers can help them develop a plan of care accordingly.

“These individuals are confronting issues that will impact their quality of life and overall state of well-being,” Conklin said. “They will feel very fulfilled if they can get the key things that are top-of-mind accomplished.”

Adopting a whole-person care approach

doctor discussing whole-person care with patient

As more insurers, providers and employers adopt whole-person care rather than treating each medical appointment as an isolated incident, costs should decrease and outcomes should improve.

“Businesses can help employees care for themselves holistically because workers tend to listen to their employers,” Conklin said. “Though an insurer or provider could not tell an employer if an individual employee had a particular health issue because of privacy laws, they could help a business address challenges its workforce may face broadly,” he said.

“For example, if an organization is in a state with a higher rate of congestive heart failure, its insurer may be able to help provide resources and perhaps rewards for employees who address the risk proactively through a whole-health approach,” Conklin said.

As more insurers, providers and employers adopt whole-person care rather than treating each medical appointment as an isolated incident, costs should decrease and outcomes should improve, according to advocates. Florida Blue, for one, is focused on achieving such gains and incentivizes providers for value-based care.

Florida Blue also measures members’ satisfaction with providers. “If people are unhappy, they are less likely to engage,” Conklin said.

And if they are not engaged in their health — both physical and mental — they will not be as healthy and happy as they could be, which ultimately is what whole health is about after all.

Learn more about Florida Blue Employer Plans

Florida Blue, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, has been providing health insurance to Florida residents for 75+ years. Driven by its mission of helping people and communities achieve better health, the company serves more than 5 million health care members across the state.

Jim Molis is a freelance writer with The Business Journals Content Studio.

This article was original published by Jacksonville Business Journal.