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Although doctors are in the healthcare business, they spend most of their time caring for patients who are anything but healthy. What if, instead of working to make sick people healthy, Cleveland Clinic concentrated on keeping them healthy to begin with? What if it took the lead in moving America and the medical profession away from "sick care" and toward true healthcare? Don't healthcare organizations have a responsibility to demonstrate what healthy behavior is?

America is seeing an epidemic of chronic illness—not just heart disease but cancer, diabetes, hypertension, emphysema, and a number of other conditions. These diseases are now so prevalent and so costly that they're threatening to destroy America's broader economic health. The country is at a turning point, and if people don't develop healthier habits, the damage will be permanent.

There's still hope. Individuals can prevent themselves from getting sick in the first place, but this country needs a new cultural paradigm—one that promotes healthy lifestyles, discourages bad habits, and supports people in making and sustaining healthy changes. And medical institutions need to lead the way, not only by encouraging patients along these lines, but also by first changing the culture within the institution.

Cleveland Clinic has been doing our part since 2004. Tens of thousands of Cleveland Clinic caregivers have stopped smoking, lost weight, developed new exercise routines, and gained better control of their chronic diseases. They've been encouraged by a new culture that focuses on the principles of wellness. The most celebrated change has been the in-house financial incentives offered to caregivers to stay in shape and manage their chronic illnesses. If they make healthier lifestyle choices, they can potentially save hundreds of dollars on their health insurance each year. These incentives have saved Cleveland Clinic more than $15 million in healthcare costs and improved the lives of thousands of caregivers and their families.

Improved wellness is an ongoing journey, but the strides that the institution has made along that path are significant and include the following:

  • Committing to wellness

  • Banning smoking on all Cleveland Clinic properties

  • Hiring only nonsmokers

  • Providing financial incentives for caregivers to quit smoking, lose weight, eat better, and manage their chronic diseases

  • Creating a Wellness Institute led by a chief wellness officer

  • Partnering with government and the community to spread the wellness word outside the organization

  • Removing sugared drinks and trans fats from the cafeterias and vending machines

  • Offering free Weight Watchers and gym memberships

As of 2013, the institution has implemented more than 80 policies and programs aimed at wellness and is seeing many of the benefits that it had anticipated—not just significant cost savings but happier, more engaged caregivers and patients.

Large health organizations can make huge strides by embracing wellness, and they can help their surrounding communities get healthier. If everyone—individuals, medical institutions, business, and government—were to ...

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