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An aging workforce does not have to be a drag on employers medical costs and productivity. Benefit plans can focus on ways to keep these employees healthy and at work. This article looks at some of the ways employers can do that.

Disease Management: Medical advances and healthier lifestyles have enhanced and lengthened the lives of Americans considerably. But the longer people live, the more likely they are to develop a chronic condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disorders.

That places a huge burden on employers who not only pay for costly medical coverage but also suffer when experienced workers cannot work productively–or, in some cases, cannot work at all.

One of the fastest growing cost containment strategies today–disease management– addresses chronic conditions by empowering participants to manage and improve their health more effectively. The tools for doing this include behavior modification, education and intervention by trained nurses.

While disease management is a relatively new medical management approach, its popularity has swelled significantly in the past decade to where it is now offered by most health plans in America.

In addition to making documented improvements in medical outcomes and quality of life, disease management has made a meaningful impact on medical costs. In most cases, employers see a return on their investment in the first year.

Case Management: Another common problem among aging workers is their ability to recover quickly after an injury or illness.

The duration of disabilities increases with age, doubling from four or five workdays lost for workers ages 16 to 35 to 10 days for those 55 and older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Case management, a cornerstone of most employers work- and nonwork-related disability programs, takes on an even more critical role with aging workers.

For example, nurse case managers, who specialize in organ transplantation, cancer and heart disease, understand the nuances of treatment, recovery and return-to-work issues associated with these complex conditions. Therefore, they are able to review treatment plans, direct employees to appropriate levels of care, and provide vocational counseling that is most relevant and specific to that employee. The end result: a more concentrated return-to-work effort and decreased disability durations.

Health Education: Consumers are more empowered than ever when it comes to the availability of abundant health information, and the speed and ease with which they can access it.

Clearly, health education in the 21st century is essential to engaging and assisting people in making medical decisions.

But this age of information may be foreign and uncomfortable for some older Americans who have previously taken a more passive role in their health care.

Generally, older people do not question their provider treatment plans as rigorously as younger people do. As a result, they may be less informed about their health care needs and less likely to seek appropriate treatment.

Health education services provided by employers, such as 24-hour nurse lines, can help older workers make appropriate decisions by giving them a trusted resource to consult. This resource can provide them with reliable, credible and immediate information. Informed consumers, in turn, can help reduce employers medical costs.

For example, a 55-year-old woman calls a nurse line complaining of chest pains and is advised to go to the emergency room. While this action may result in higher short-term costs, seeking help early may avert a heart attack and much greater long-term costs.

Additionally, integrated nurse lines and disease management programs can identify people, like older workers, who may be at higher risk for chronic conditions. This advance identification can lead to automatic enrollment in the disease management program, thereby giving employers even greater savings potential.

Return to Work: As people age, their physical capabilities, such as strength, stamina and visual acuity, decline making them more susceptible to injury and making certain physical tasks harder to perform.

Employers can address this problem by implementing solutions geared to aging workers. Such solutions may be as simple as improved lighting or light-duty assignments.

For even more impact, employers can study workforce injury patterns and risk factors by age groups, and use this information to create transitional or accommodated duty before an injury occurs.

Older, experienced workers are a competitive advantage for employers today, especially when companies must maximize the productivity of every worker. Benefit programs that address the needs of this expanding workforce can be a valuable means of achieving this objective.

, M.D, is vice president and medical director for Intracorp, Philadelphia. He is board certified in geriatrics. His e-mail address is cvojta@mail.intracorp.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, April 28, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.