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Aetna President: Why Health Care Is Moving Beyond the Physical Body

August 6, 2018, 5:07 PM UTC
Aetna President Karen Lynch explains why modern health services need to include mental health and holistic care.
Courtesy of Aetna

Do you want to know what the future of your health looks like? Start with your zip code.

Believe it or not, where a person lives is a better indicator of health than their genetic code. We call this—along with other factors, including physical and emotional health, social networks, and financial security—social determinants of health. These factors make up your overall well-being, yet our health care system is largely focused on just treating illness.

As our industry makes significant shifts in how we think about health care—from the care experience to managing the cost of care—one of the ways we’re challenging the status quo is by examining how medical professionals not only treat, but also interact with patients. This requires that we consider the whole person—not just their symptoms. By gaining a deeper understanding and insight into other important factors that impact health, we are able to provide support that can help consumers achieve their health goals—whether that’s playing with their grandkids, taking a walk in their local park, or managing diabetes.

Mental health’s direct impact

The association between mental health and physical health is so significant that we cannot address them separately. For instance, up to 50% of cancer patients suffer from a mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety, and treating symptoms of depression in cancer patients may improve survival. Similarly, adults with a depressive disorder are 64% more likely to develop coronary artery disease (CAD), and patients with CAD who are also depressed are 59% more likely to have another adverse cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or cardiac death.

There is no health care strategy without mental health. Nearly 68% of Aetna members who suffer from a mental health condition have a secondary medical diagnosis, underlining the importance of providing health care that treats the whole person. And it’s not just patients who stand to benefit from a shift to holistic health—it’s overall health care spending too. Eighty-six percent of the $2.7 trillion we spend in health care is associated with chronic and mental health conditions, which often go hand in hand and impact at least 117 million people.

Consumer demand for treating the whole person

It is not just the industry driving this change; it’s coming from consumers too. Increasingly, consumers report being ready to make the shift to “well care” and proactively manage their health. They aren’t waiting until they are sick.

In Aetna’s inaugural Health Ambitions Study, consumers told us that overall well-being has become more central to their health: More than one-third have either a stress reduction (49%) or mental health (45%) goal. Of those who have yet to make progress on these goals, more than half (51%) say they’re looking for help in achieving them. In fact, most respondents (86%) want their primary care physician to also be familiar with their mental health history.

Address health holistically

We have been evaluating wellness through the lens of social determinants of health at Aetna for quite some time, and believe we are on the right path when it comes to improving health. One way we are doing this is through a partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on a multi-year research project aimed at the tangible impact of social determinants of health on members’ overall well-being.

But to sustainably manage the health needs of individuals, we must transform health care overall by shifting from a reactive, “sick care” approach to a proactive, “well care” approach—focused on maintaining good physical and mental health for all individuals.

It’s clear that consumers are making holistic health a priority, and it’s time that the health care industry does too. By considering all factors of a person’s life, we, as an industry, will be able to provide consumers with the resources and support they need to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

Karen S. Lynch is the president of Aetna.