A quick quiz.

Our health system is

A.  More of a sickness system than a health system
B.  Swamped by an epidemic of lifestyle-related and chronic conditions
C.  Likely to be unsustainable by 2020
D.  All of the above

If you chose option D, you’d be right. A report by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2005 warned that the health systems of the western world would be unsustainable by 2020 if unchanged. Since then the Australian Government has also published a number of reports saying we must refocus our health system on prevention, early intervention and self-management of healthcare, but it seems little has changed.

Unfortunately, this epidemic has considerable momentum, driven by western lifestyle amongst other things, and the machinery of government turns slowly. For example, obesity was added to the list of National Health Priority Areas in 2008, when 50% of the population was already classified as overweight or obese.

Since then, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that if current trends continue 3/4 of Australian adults and 1/3 of all children will be overweight or obese by 2020. Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer are on the rise, and with an ageing population, so is dementia.

“At least 70% of the burden on our healthcare system is now due to largely avoidable lifestyle-related conditions and risk-factors,” says Garry Egger, Professor of Health Sciences at Southern Cross University.

Every family is affected

Lifestyle-related conditions touch every family. By ‘lifestyle’, we mean our health behaviours, society and environment, so it’s not just about overweight and obesity.

Conditions that can have lifestyle causes include high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, lung diseases, kidney disease, asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia and some cancers.

“The World Health Organisation has said that nearly 80% of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 Diabetes and 40% of cancer could be prevented by better ‘lifestyle choices’.”

Yet so much of the epidemic of chronic conditions is preventable or modifiable. The World Health Organisation has said that nearly 80% of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 Diabetes and 40% of cancer could be prevented by better ‘lifestyle choices’.

“What this means is that most visits to GPs are now the result of lifestyle factors, yet it’s surprisingly common for people to be taking medication to lower blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar without the underlying causes of those conditions being addressed,” says Egger.

“We need large-scale real-world approaches, such as programs that help people create their own long-term improved health outcomes.”

Stephen Penman, lead on the Open Health project says, “Unfortunately, there’s little confidence that government is on top of this health crisis. Vested interests and lack of political will seem to be the norm and some of the most obvious things are not being done, whether at a health policy or primary care level.”

“But it’s not all bleak. History has shown that where political will is weak, systemic change usually comes from the people,” says Penman. “We believe Australians want the tools to take charge of their health and will join the movement to make this happen.”

The cause is nine tenths of the cure

There is also some good news. Our bodies will naturally tend towards health (homeostasis) if we allow them to. When poor health results from lifestyle or environmental factors, appropriate management and perhaps a return to health, can be found by modifying those factors.

“There’s only a handful of programs like this anywhere in the world and until now, they have only been available in face-to-face and small group settings, sometimes as part of cardiac rehabilitation”

A comprehensive lifestyle change program is one way of achieving this, providing structure and support to change long-standing beliefs and behaviours.

“There’s only a handful of programs like this anywhere in the world and until now, they have only been available in face-to-face and small group settings, sometimes as part of cardiac rehabilitation. It’s time lifestyle change was made available to everyone, before having a health crisis in the family,” says Penman.

“Once again, it’s important to point out that lifestyle change is much more than just health behaviour.  We need to look at the reasons why we do what we do, the things that keep us stuck – very often its our social environment – so we need to start with self-empowerment and enhancing self-efficacy to manage our own health.”

Introducing Open Health

Responding to the need for accessible, scalable and social solutions, the Lifestyle Medicine Foundation has announced Open Health, an ambitious social enterprise to develop, test and launch a world-first online comprehensive lifestyle change program into the health system and into the social context of our everyday lives.

At the heart of Open Health is a comprehensive online health enhancement program designed to tackle everything from high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol, to overweight, stress, sleep and environmental factors.

Penman says, “Open Health will be a game-changer for the Australian health system. It’s a program that doctors will be able to prescribe for their patients, workplaces will be able to provide to their staff, and the general public will be able to use personally to take charge of and improve their own health.”

At the heart of Open Health is a comprehensive online health enhancement program designed to tackle everything from high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol, to overweight, stress, sleep and environmental factors.

“By ‘online’ we mean delivered across all devices, sms and email. ‘Comprehensive’ means applicable to all lifestyle-related conditions and risk factors, and also for improving health generally,” says Penman.

“It’s ground-breaking because we’re combining the psychology and clinical application of health behaviour with communication technology in a more sophisticated and interactive way than has been attempted before.”

“In short, we’re taking health enhancement online and making it empowering, engaging and enjoyable,” Penman says.

Champion the change

The Foundation’s challenge is to develop, test (via beta testing, user experience testing and clinical trials), launch and promote Open Health as a national health system initiative. With enough funding, the program can be ready for beta-testing next year with a clinical trial to begin soon after.

Much work has been done to reach this point. The scientific research and technical R&D has been done, partnerships have been formed with like-minded organisations, scientists, researchers, public health professionals and health practitioners across the country, and numerous experts have volunteered their time and expertise to oversee the program.

“It’s time to engage the power of the community to address chronic conditions and risk factors at a grass roots level. We invite you to champion the cause and to commit to being part of the groundswell that will make this happen,” says Penman.

The Lifestyle Medicine Foundation is a registered health promotion charity (donations are tax deductible) and there are lots of way you can get involved. Importantly, register your interest so we can keep you in the loop here. And be sure to spread the word to your family, friends and workplace!