THE BLOG

Good Health Can Be Contagious

03/11/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2013

More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wisely stated, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." What was true then is true today in Appalachia, Ky., where Microclinic International (the non-profit organization I lead), the Bell County Health Department, and Humana are working together to prevent and manage major chronic disease epidemics.

We now know that three behaviors (poor diet, physical inactivity, and smoking) can lead to four non-communicable diseases (lung disease, several cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease), which in turn result in 50 percent of global mortality each year. From the Pacific Islands, to South Asia, to the Middle East, to Appalachia, NCDs, which disproportionately harm those in under-served communities, are creating not only a global economic crisis, but also a challenge of grave humanitarian concern. The good news is this trillion-dollar problem is largely preventable through targeted interventions that seek to change social behaviors. But it cannot be done without a concerted effort by the for-profit, non-profit, and governmental sectors working together with community leader toward the common goal of prevention.

One such example of how this could work on a national level can be found in Appalachia, where Microclinic International is working with community leaders and the Bell County Health Department as they implement a program to fight the epidemics of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes. The program, Team Up 4 Health, is based on the premise that small behavior changes can have a big impact as they spread through preexisting networks of friends and family members. Team Up 4 Health is sponsored by Humana, a Fortune 100 corporation focused on health and wellness. The company's chairman, Mike McCallister, summarized their corporate social responsibility strategy as follows:

As a company committed to helping people achieve lifelong well-being, we understand the value of trying a new approach to preventing disease, not just treating it. We chose Bell County because we identified it as a high-need area, the community was open to the idea of change, and we wanted to help people here in Humana's home state of Kentucky.

Coming from a very different perspective, Willene Black, one of the Bell County participants in the Team Up 4 Health program also praised the power of prevention; she told me that this program "saved her life."

Beyond the human stories, my colleagues and I have been looking at hard numbers, which are showing tangible improvements in health. For example, we now have preliminary results showing that 97 percent of the participants who completed the program have experienced one or more health improvement in the areas of decreased body mass index, weight loss, symptoms of diabetes and blood pressure.

The Team Up 4 Health program is built on Microclinic International's "real life" social network model, which recognizes that a community's greatest assets are not its bricks and mortar infrastructure; its greatest assets really are the people. We therefore recruit individuals who self-organize into groups at a central location; together they learn, monitor their health, and engage in fun social activities. Through social network interactions, healthy behaviors spread from person to person and are reinforced on a regular basis outside of the formal confines of the program. We call this process "contagious health."

After working in five countries and conducting high-level studies on the efficacy of our work, Microclinic International has demonstrated that the social network principles underlying our model are not simply applicable for an American audience in Bell County, Ky. They are universal principles that are applicable wherever individuals organize into social groups. And with few exceptions, the vast majority of governmental, for-profit, and non-profit institutions, as well as the local communities themselves, have some level of common interest in keeping people healthier, happier, and more productive members of society. The people of Bell County are teaching us that good health can be made contagious between individuals, groups, and even amongst nations.

Won't you help us by passing some on today?