High blood pressure is known as a silent killer, but the Eat Well, Live Well program wants to make some noise about it.
The program that promotes workplace wellness launched a new challenge this week to get local employees to know their blood pressure numbers.
In it, employers will encourage employees to have their blood pressure taken and enter it at the Eat Well, Live Well website, where the numbers are kept private. To add a dash of competition, weekly standings of employers with the highest percentage of eligible employees screened will be publicized.
The goal of the Blood Pressure Challenge is to make Rochester the healthiest community in America, program leaders said. Employers from across the nine-county region are invited to participate.
"As you know, blood pressure has been chosen as a community health rallying point, a single, easy-to-understand number by which we can build health momentum and education," said leaders of the Eat Well, Live Well program in a letter announcing the beginning of the challenge. "Through this initiative we will raise awareness around blood pressure and deliver educational messaging to motivate people to take action within a fun 'contest' format."
This is not first time that the Eat Well, Live Well program has focused on high blood pressure. For close to eight years, a group of employers including Paychex Inc., Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., Bausch & Lomb Inc. and Rochester Institute of Technology have been conducting workplace wellness initiatives within the program.
That group grew to include the University of Rochester Medical Center, Unity Health System and Rochester General Health System. The Finger Lakes Health System group and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield later joined as well.
The core group decided to focus on a health problem that was chronic and fairly prevalent, said Jake Flaitz, director of benefits at Paychex.
"We decided to focus on high blood pressure because it's often a comorbidity to other conditions and leads to bad things if not controlled," he said. "The impact it has on people's lives is significant, and so is the cost of treatment, both for individuals and companies."
High blood pressure also stood out as an area of focus because it can be controlled through lifestyle changes, Flaitz said.
"One of the challenges of high blood pressure is that it's a silent killer," he said. "We can walk around with it and feel OK, but if not controlled it can have some very bad complications."
The reputation as a silent killer is apt, said Nancy Bennett M.D., director of the Center for Community Health at URMC. Roughly 30 percent of Americans have high blood pressure, but many of them are simply not aware of it, she said.
"Once they do find out they have high blood pressure, it doesn't take a lot to see a physician and get it under control," Bennett said. "But first they need to find out."
At Paychex, promoting healthy blood pressure already has become part of the culture. The company installed a kiosk at its Penfield office where employees can check their blood pressure. It has become so popular that Paychex is installing four more kiosks in other buildings, Flaitz said.
Much of the success of the blood pressure initiative, he said, has come from the willingness of local companies to work together.
"What we're doing here in Rochester is unique," Flaitz said. "The collaborative nature you find here you don't have in a lot of other markets, and that's not just between employers. We have health systems and physicians working together, and it gives us a great chance to positively impact the community."
Participants will also get some help from the program itself, noted Sandra Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc.
"We're providing tool kits for employers to help with the program, and they will have devices at their work sites where they can take blood pressure," Parker said. "It's great because it's something that even employers without big benefit plans can have access to."
The initiative is especially effective for small businesses, said Howie Jacobson, managing partner at Dixon Schwabl Advertising Inc. Being able to leverage the power of all the major health systems working together gives employees access to care and benefits that many companies simply are unable to offer on their own, he said.
"This focus on workplace wellness has been great and created a model that's not just large companies," Jacobson said. "The nice thing is that small companies can participate in all the programs that are out there, like the American Heart Association Walk and the Chase Corporate Challenge."
Dixon Schwabl embraces this philosophy, encouraging employees to engage in healthy activities like joining the company softball or volleyball team.
Extending the initiative to include blood pressure will have a major effect on public health, Jacobson predicted.
"The fact that this initiative now has the component of blood pressure is very interesting, because when you know your blood pressure number, you can really make an impact on the health of your entire body," he said.
If the program is successful, the benefits of reducing high blood pressure will go beyond improved lives and healthier offices, Bennett said. It will also reduce instances of diabetes and other dangerous and expensive complications that commonly arise from the condition, ultimately lowering costs across the entire local health care system.
This means not only lower health care costs but lower absentee rates and increased productivity, Bennett said.
The initial goal for the program is to reach 100,000 people in its first round, Parker said, and it already has close to 85,000. By the second round, she said, the program hopes to double the number of people involved and extend it to community groups and organizations. She also sees room for growth beyond Rochester.
Jacobson said he looks forward to seeing the health benefits spread throughout the community as the program grows.
"We're going to have one awesome, healthy community and be well on our way to 1 million people knowing and understanding their blood pressure," he said.
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