FT Health: Boardroom commitment key to healthier workforce

Workplace health, Sally Davies, magic mushrooms

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Lack of sleep, excessive stress, unhealthy diets, insufficient exercise: evidence is growing of the factors which affect individuals' physical and mental wellbeing. As the FT's Health at Work report shows, risky behaviour or ill health affects corporate productivity through employee absenteeism and "presenteeism" — when they turn up to work, but are ineffective when they get there.

As employers recognise the value of providing support, they are taking action. Companies are appointing mental health champions, instituting walking meetings and allowing flexible working patterns. There is no "silver bullet", but research shows the most important ingredient to ensure success is commitment at boardroom level to invest in employees’ physical and mental health.

It is also vital to change individuals' behaviour over the long term. Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and previously New York City's health commissioner, is well placed to try. He is heading Resolve to save lives, a global initiative with $225m in philanthropic funding to change diets and prevent heart disease and stroke, the world’s leading cause of death. The challenges are considerable, but even modest improvements would have a big impact.

Read our full report on Health at Work and watch our video discussion with former government adviser Dame Carol Black of Newnham College and Shaun Subel, director of strategy at Vitality Health.


Three questions

Dame Sally Davies, the UK's chief medical officer, whose initiatives have included workplace health, the state of baby boomers and genomic services.

Why is it important to invest in health at work?

Sickness absence costs the UK economy over £100bn a year in productivity losses. Employers will save money and do better as a business. Employees take home those behaviours so you reach their families and everyone gets the advantage. The evidence is that interventions work. They will save business and the civil service money if they invest in this properly.

What have you done in the Department of Health?

With the permanent secretary, we have provided much more mental health support. Stress and mild-to-moderate depression need picking up early. Managers and colleagues need to be aware. Just talking about it removes the stigma. We have a gym, exercise classes, showers and healthy food. Everyone is very much in favour. People would complain now if these facilities weren’t there. 

What are your other current top priorities?

Antimicrobial resistance: we are trying to make sure the United Nations’ family delivers what it can: reducing inappropriate use, increasing access, focusing on infection prevention and control in the human, animal and agriculture sectors, sharing experience and making sure people know what the opportunities are. 


Chartwatch

R&D expenditure A new study on private sector investment in global health research and development finds large increases from Chinese, Indian, and other non-western pharmaceutical companies. Private sector involvement must increase to counteract a likely slowdown from public sources. (Brookings Institution)


News round-up

Air pollution Almost a third of the global cardiovascular disease burden stems from ambient and household air pollution, the WHO said. The University of Chicago's Air Quality-Life Index allows you to see how much longer you would live if your country reduced pollution to national standards or those of the WHO. London schools are getting a "toxic air audit". (WHO, Univ of Chicago, Evening Standard)

Orphan drug clampdown The US Food and Drug Administration is changing the way it approves medicines for rare diseases after pharma companies were found to be abusing the process. Nearly half of the new drugs approved by the FDA are for rare diseases — even though many of them are marketed for common diseases. (Kaiser)

Offshore testing Ninety per cent of new drugs approved by the US this year were tested at least in part outside the US and Canada but doubts have been raised about lapses in standards in countries without a strong tradition of clinical research. (Stat)

Drug price wars A legal battle is raging between the UK's National Health Service and drugmakers over high prices after powers introduced in April gave NHS England the right to ration costly medicines. Industry argues the changes will limit patients’ access to cutting-edge treatments.(Telegraph)

Treatment of depression  Could a new field of ‘immuno-neurology’ be on the horizon? Scientists at Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust are hoping to begin trials next year to test whether anti-inflammatory drugs could switch off depression. (Telegraph)

Aid cuts warning The Gates Foundation's "Goalkeepers" report aims to track progress on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals of 2015. Despite encouraging data on child mortality and HIV, Melinda Gates told the FT that global progress on health was at risk as countries such as the US cut back on aid. Watch our video interview. (Gates Foundation, Lancet, FT)

Medics in wartime A former doctor at Afghanistan's Camp Bastion tries to help the public understand war from a medic's point of view. (The Conversation) 

Magic mushrooms A test of 400 patients across eight European countries will see if psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can help with depression. The trial is the boldest attempt yet to relaunch scientific study of the psychedelic substance in more than half a century after the clampdown on psychoactive drugs in the 1960s. A new study shows marijuana use among US teenagers at its lowest since 1994 although it continues to rise among adults. (FT, Chicago Tribune)

Stubbing out smoking Philip Morris pledged $1bn to tackle tobacco smoking by funding the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The move will spark scepticism at a time when recent investigations have highlighted continued efforts to sell tobacco in developing countries. (FT) 

Digital developments Jeremy Hunt, the UK health secretary, said patients in England should be able to access their records, book appointments and order prescriptions via an app by the end of next year. Robots instead of medics could diagnose diseases within a decade, he added. Doctors were not impressed. (Guardian, Huffington Post)

Life extension For $25,000, Genetics pioneer Craig Ventner's new venture offers a complete genome sequence, a full-body MRI scan and other tests for the early detection of problems such as tumours before they become life-threatening. Investors are impressed, doctors less so. (Bloomberg)

What makes a great surgeon? “You’ve got to have the characteristics of a psychopath.” Eminent practitioners Henry Marsh and Stephen Westaby on ‘100 per cent mortality’, the embattled NHS and why self-deception is a clinical skill. (FT)


Best from the journals

Life, death and disability The huge Global Burden of Disease study shows the world is becoming healthier but that progress is uneven. People are living longer, but with more disease. An estimated 72 per cent of all deaths in 2016 were from non-communicable diseases. Levels of obesity and diabetes are rising at an alarming rate. (The Lancet)

Bridging the health gap in Africa The Lancet launched a Commission on health in sub-Saharan Africa, where life expectancy and other indicators remain behind most low- and middle-income countries. It recommends 12 policy options to promote good health, prevent disease and expand access to treatment so this gap can be closed by 2030. (The Lancet)

Public health emergencies From Anthrax to Zika — a special issue on the handling of US health emergencies. (American Journal of Public Health)

Fighting cancer A report challenges a commonly held view that high prices for cancer drugs are due to high R&D costs. The cost of development of a single medicine is around $648m, far lower than recent estimates ranging up to $2.7bn. The Economist reports that scientists are winning the technical battle against cancer, but that is only half the fight. (JAMA, The Economist)

New approaches to asthma Substantial progress was made on asthma in the 1990s and early 2000s but there has been little improvement in the past 10 years. A Lancet Commission argues this is due to outdated and unhelpful labelling of the disease, treatment and research frameworks and how asthma is monitored. (The Lancet)

Spin, conflicts and 'post-truth' The 'post-truth' phenomena is merely a "virulent form of an old disease" dating back to the tobacco industry tactics of the 1950s. A separate report looks at "spin" in biomedical journals and another examines conflicts of interest from physicians mentioning certain drugs on Twitter. (BMJ, PLoS, Lancet)


Podcast of the week

Googling depression US Google users searching for "depression" will be shown a link to the PHQ-9 screening test, a common way of diagnosing and measuring the condition. What are the merits — and drawbacks — of this approach? (BMJ, 35m)


In case you missed it

Previous edition Stem cells — pushing the boundaries

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Final thought

Are you a cyberchondriac? We're all guilty of having a quick look online when we're feeling under the weather but here's another reminder of how some online health information — albeit well intentioned and informative — can be misleading and actually make matters worse. (The Conversation)

Help us find 50 ideas to change the world

Underfunded health systems sit uncomfortably alongside the seemingly limitless promise of new technologies and techniques to address a variety of health risks. What emerging approaches and techniques are the most promising for treating or avoiding sickness and disability? Send us your ideas.

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