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Posts Tagged ‘World Health Organization’

Growing Inequality in Health and Life Expectancy Between Nations

April 4th, 2015 at 3:57 pm by timigustafson

April 7 is World Health Day, an annual event sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote greater awareness of global health issues. Conferences and activities all over the world address diverse topics like life expectancy, infant mortality, spread of diseases, access to clean drinking water, healthcare infrastructure, to mention a few. This year’s main focus is on the growing threat of foodborne illnesses.

Life expectancy, in particular, has long been considered a leading indicator for progress or decline of public health, and many changes have taken place in this regard over time. However, the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the world in terms of health status and longevity remains wide and may not significantly narrow in the foreseeable future. For example, most African populations still fall many years short behind their European and North American counterparts.

An outlier turns out to be Qatar, which is now rated the healthiest country in the world, followed by Norway and Switzerland. Why Qatar? Although this relatively small country with a population of just over 2 million has no national healthcare system, easy and affordable access to medical services seems one of the distinguishing factors. With more than three physicians per 1,000 people, the country is better staffed with healthcare professionals than most others. By comparison, the United States has less than two and a half doctors per 1000 inhabitants, while Canada has about two.

Yet, the US is well known for having the highest medical expenditures in the world. According to Forbes, the annual per capita spending on healthcare here is well over $8,000. Canada spends a bit more than half as much.

What do Americans get in return for that kind of money? Unfortunately, a lot less than one would expect. Among 10 of the most developed countries, the US comes in dead last, behind Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most European nations.

The most striking deficiencies are related to a convoluted healthcare system that is less efficient and less affordable for large parts of the population.

Inequality is a particularly pressing problem. According to the report on healthcare spending and based on data by the WHO, the US ranks clearly last on measures of equal access to healthcare.

“Americans with below-average incomes were much more likely than their counterparts in other countries to report not visiting a physician when sick; not getting a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up care; or not filling a prescription or skipping doses when needed because of costs. On each of these indicators, one third or more lower-income adults in the US said they went without needed care because of costs,” it said in the report.

By contrast, Canada was generally lauded for its universal healthcare system but also faulted for its high costs as well as timeliness and efficiency of care. High marks were given to Australia for quality and cost efficiency.

To turn things around, WHO experts recommend that policymakers in the respective healthcare systems combat first today’s fastest spreading health threats like lifestyle-related chronic diseases, a.k.a. non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, heart disease, and lung disease, largely through preventive measures like reducing tobacco use and dietary improvements.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Workers’ Health, a Priority for Business Leaders

January 25th, 2014 at 5:55 pm by timigustafson

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, issues of health and wellness are at the center of numerous events and gatherings. Those topics have been addressed here before – an initiative called Workplace Wellness Alliance was started in 2009 – but interest has increased substantially since then and has now gotten the attention of leaders and representatives of businesses and countries from around the world.

“In today’s environment of economic uncertainty, individuals, institutions and countries are striving for greater adaptability and resilience against setbacks while continuing towards improving competitiveness in an ever-changing world,” wrote Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the Forum in the opening statement of this year’s program. “In this context, organizations, in their role as employers, have an even greater responsibility to nurture employee resilience; there is strong evidence that a healthy workforce is vital to a country’s competitiveness, productivity and well-being.”

Dismal statistics about growing stress and burnout at work underline the importance of paying greater attention to work-related health problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 350 million people suffer from mostly stress-related depression worldwide. It is one of the leading causes of disability and a contributing factor in multiple so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While a certain amount of stress in the workplace is considered unavoidable and can even be an integral part of productivity, unhealthy stress levels are reached when workers face demands and pressures that exceed their abilities or are beyond their control or leave them feel unsupported. By contrast, the WHO states, “a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.” This includes, but is not limited to, the “availability of health-promoting organizational support practices and structures.”

As self-evident as some of these descriptions may seem, employers have not always been quick to recognize their role in addressing the health concerns of their workforce. Traditionally, even employer-sponsored healthcare systems like in the United States have not systematically engaged in preventive measures to reduce illnesses and injuries in the workplace. But with rising insurance premiums and other healthcare-related costs, businesses feel the need to invest more in the welfare of their workers, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is in their own interest.

According to Buck Consultants, a global consulting firm specializing in human resources, work-related stress is now considered a top health risk and drives workplace wellness programs in many parts of the world. In addition to skyrocketing direct healthcare expenses, absenteeism (sick leave) and presenteeism (workers show up for work but are not fully productive) cost companies billions of dollars in annual losses, much of which could be prevented.

The issue should not only concern the business world. The last thing any society can afford is to have a large part of its working population burned out and forced into early retirement because of disability, said Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s former labor minister who became lately the country’s first female defense secretary. “These cases are no longer just the exception. It’s a trend that we have to do something about,” she said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency.

Nearly one out of every 10 sick days is due to psychological illness, yet labor protection still covers almost exclusively physical health problems, even in Germany where labor laws are already relatively strict compared to other countries, including the U.S.

Under von der Leyen’s leadership, the German government has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the risk of burnout among workers and vowed to explore possible solutions.

But ultimately it will be up to business leaders to create more health-conducive work environments where workers can thrive instead of being used up for the sake of increased but short-lived productivity.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a number of targets for reducing so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 25 percent by 2025. NCDs are chronic illnesses largely caused by dietary and lifestyle factors. They include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers and chronic respiratory illnesses that combined have become the leading causes of death globally, according to the agency.

Chronic diseases account for 36 million deaths annually, over 60 percent of all human mortality. They continue to accelerate globally and are advancing across all regions, affecting all socioeconomic classes. It is expected that almost three-quarters of all deaths will be caused by chronic diseases by 2020.

Chronic diseases are defined as illnesses of long duration and generally slow progression. They are also considered as largely preventable by positive dietary and lifestyle changes.

One of the leading causes is obesity, which has doubled worldwide since 1980. Weight problems are the fifth leading risk factor for all deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result from being overweight. In addition, 44 percent of diabetes rates, 23 percent of heart disease rates and up to 41 percent of cancer rates are attributable to weight problems. Obesity is now linked to more deaths worldwide than underweight.

Especially worrisome is the continuing rise of childhood obesity. In 2010, more than 40 million children under the age of five (!) were overweight. Almost 35 million of these live in developing countries. Most impoverished children who have weight problems are also severely malnourished.

Leading causes of unhealthy weight gain are poor diets based on energy-dense foods that are high in fat, salt and sugars but low in nutrients. A worldwide decrease in physical activity due to sedentary lifestyles, increasing urbanization and changing modes of work and transportation also plays a role.

To change the current trends, improvements must take place on several levels, according to WHO recommendations, including individual responsibility, education, social environments as well as quality and affordability of food supply. “Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping people’s choices. The food industry can play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by reducing fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods, ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all customers and by practicing responsible marketing.”

The “WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health,” which was first introduced by the World Health Assembly in 2004, calls for actions needed to support healthy eating habits and regular physical activity. The agency “calls upon all stakeholders to take action at global, regional and local levels to improve diets and physical activity patterns at the population level.” For this, an action plan was developed for the prevention and control of NCDs as a roadmap to establish and strengthen more initiatives on local, national and international platforms.

Although the targets set by the WHO are not binding and lack in many ways specificity, similar initiatives have shown some degree of effectiveness in the past. For instance in 1987, the World Health Assembly created the first “World No Tobacco Day” to draw global attention to the health effects of smoking. It is commemorated every year on May 31 as an occasion to help reduce worldwide tobacco use. In 2005, the agency released the “Framework Convention on Tobacco Control” (FCTC) with similar goals.

Tobacco use is still the second most common cause of death in the world, after hypertension, being responsible for killing one in 10 adults every year. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but progress has been made. Hopefully, WHO’s continuing efforts will increase awareness of the seriousness of chronic diseases as well.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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