Promising Developments in Wellness

Ever heard of “suicide by lifestyle”? The term, which is popping up at health care reform and innovation gatherings, refers to how Americans increasingly shorten their lives by eating food that makes them sick.

For millions of people, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, joint replacements and more are preventable with the right lifestyle choices, but all are growing at epidemic rates.

This disaster is not just a matter of individual agony. Given the cost of our medical system, we may soon be speaking of “national suicide by lifestyle” if the untenable growth in cost of care is not reversed.

Stemming the epidemic of chronic disease is difficult because a dense cultural ecosystem makes us unwell. Efficient farming has made calories cheaper than ever in human history. Fast food is easier to come by than healthier alternatives, and is brilliantly engineered to slacken and stoke our craving for sugar, fat and salt.

Energy-saving inventions, such as the car, the escalator and the people-mover make it easy to get around without burning our own calories, and few of us work anymore at jobs that require us to sweat. Finally, it’s just plain hard to stick to long-lasting behavior change. Look at the number of people who crowd the gym in January, only to fade in March and disappear by June.

Reinforcing this problem is our notion that “health” is created by doctors and hospitals, rather than in our kitchens and parks. In reality, we pay our doctors for curing sicknesses rather than keeping us well.

The Path to Recovery

I see exciting signs that we may be getting serious about turning our suicidal path around. I love the fact that the First Lady has chosen childhood obesity as her signature issue. And I love that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have stirred controversy by mocking her concerns. All of this, in my view, will raise awareness of the facts of this emerging catastrophe.

On a more practical level, Wal-Mart announced earlier this year that it would start promoting healthy foods through discounting fresh fruits and vegetables and limiting sodium, fats and sugars in its less-expensive store brand foods over time. If successful, the impact could be enormous. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, sells nearly 25% of all groceries nationwide, and focuses on socioeconomic segments most challenged by our unhealthy food culture.

Business innovators are also starting to see opportunity in promoting health. A young company called Linkwell Health (www.linkwellhealth.com) works with health insurers and food marketers to design and implement couponing programs to make healthy foods more affordable to individuals with chronic health conditions.

For example, if you have chronic heart disease and you like a certain kind of canned beef stew, Linkwell enables your insurer to subsidize the heart-healthy brand with discount coupons.

I’m also intrigued by a startup named meQuilibrium which launched a free Facebook app called the meQuilibrium Stress Tracker. Based on years of R&D of an effective stress management algorithm, and following successful models of Weight Watchers Online and other similar tools, the fledgling company wants to help consumers “get [their] head in the game” by reducing stress and increasing resilience.

Health insurers like Humana are also starting to use premium dollars to reward health-producing behavior and penalize choices—so far mostly limited to smoking—that cause disease. Even the U.S. government is taking encouraging baby steps. Beginning this year, up to $200 million in federal grants will be available to help small companies start wellness programs, and in 2014 employers will be able to reward participants in such programs with discounts on health care costs.

As a health services-focused venture capitalist, I look constantly for opportunities to reduce cost in the system by improving our overall health. We’ve only just begun.

David A. Jones Jr. is Chairman and Managing Director of Chrysalis Ventures. Jones is an investor in meQuilibrium and a board member and former chairman of Humana Inc. He can be reached at djones@chrysalisventures.com.