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  • Rich Tafel

Mexico's Businesses Cooperation: a Global Model for Health Care Innovation

As social entrepreneurs everywhere seek innovative solutions to provide health care to more people, they should take a good look at the business sector.

According to a World Economic Forum report, The Workplace Wellness Alliance: Delivering on Health and Productivity, released at the United Nations this past month, workplace wellness councils are emerging as one of the most powerful leaders in reducing health care costs and improving health around the globe. The report makes the case that business has a reach that the nonprofit sector does not: “Employers are uniquely positioned to improve health, as they have access to over 50 percent of the world population through the workplace.”

The business sector in Mexico is highlighted in the report as a leading example of workplace innovation strategies.

A little background: Mexico’s health care model resembled that of the United States until 2004, when it began offering universal health coverage. In response to a spotty public health care system, corporations developed their own internal health care systems, often hosting doctors and clinics on site. Then health care costs began to surge.

As U.S. fast food culture spreads around the world, diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease follow closely behind. Last year, Mexico beat out the United States as the most overweight nation—69 percent of Mexicans over the age of 15 are clinically obese. Combine that with a tobacco epidemic where thirteen million Mexicans smoke, and you have a health care cost crisis.

Over the last decade, Mexican businesses have found themselves in a quandary. Skyrocketing health care costs are taking their toll on companies’ bottom lines. Shareholders have been pressuring businesses to cut their private health care models, placing their workers in the already-overwhelmed government system. Last May, Mexico’s health minister joined 70 leading corporations to launch Mexico’s Workplace Wellness Council. The council’s aim is to share best practices, implement cutting-edge disease prevention campaigns, and train HR staff to help educate and incentivize employees to improve their health—all with the goal of reducing health care costs for employers.

It’s working. Just this month, a national vaccine company, MedicRAMA is offering Mexico’s Wellness Council member companies a dramatically cheaper group rate on flu vaccines. The idea of offering the vaccines to employees at work is a new idea for companies. Yet this best practice provides employers a low cost way to provide an additional benefit to employees, saving them money and time, reducing the effect of flu related absenteeism on the company’s productivity, and demonstrating the company’s commitment to employee wellness.

Another example is innovation around stress management. Mexico has a very young workforce and the leading self-reported health issues for employees under 35 are stress related. Mexicans work longer hours than anyone in the world—10 hours, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Council members are now encouraging their employees to take daily breaks and insisting they leave work at a reasonable time.

The council is also working together on a website that will offer incentives such as health food gift cards for employees who read information on prevention measures.

Dr. Humberto Gracia, medical director of Latin America for General Electric and co-chair of the Wellness Council’s Medical Committee, sums up the value to companies, saying: “As more companies across Mexico take action to improve employee health, the need for best practices has increased. Since no single company has all the answers, it is smart for companies to take advantage of the Wellness Council to figure out what works and what does not work.”

Dr. Gracia is backed up by a 2010 Harvard Business Review study, “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?”, which reported that “Workplace wellness decreased health costs, increased productivity, and heightened morale.”

After just one year, the council members estimate that wellness programs have positively impacted more than one million individuals.

Abner Mason, the council’s director, sees a model that can be replicated: “Mexico’s Workplace Wellness Council is a simple model with powerful results that can be scaled quickly in developing countries around the world. We don’t have to wait for governments to enact healthcare reform. The private sector can move ahead and lead the way on this. Mexico is leading the way here for other countries.”

Ultimately, governments will need to figure out how to cut costs while improving healthcare for citizens. Business leaders don’t need to wait. Global wellness councils offer a chance for businesses to put aside competition and share best practices.

It’s time for global workplace leaders to follow Mexico’s example.

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