Editor’s Note: At July’s AHA Leadership Summit, AHA Board Member Allen Weiss, president and CEO of NCH Healthcare System in Naples, Fla., shared how his organization is working with partners to create healthy communities. 
 
When three nurses at NCH Healthcare System in Naples, Fla., were diagnosed with breast cancer back-to-back about seven ago, President and CEO Allen Weiss, M.D., wanted to better understand why. What they had in common, he learned, was that none of them had gotten regular mammograms. 

“We are a health care institution with 715 beds, 4,300 folks, 80 percent women, and we own radiology equipment,” said Weiss, who serves on the AHA Board of Trustees. “We want to be an example, and we wanted to start practicing what we preach.”  

That’s when Weiss and NCH decided to turn inward and experiment with how it could improve quality of life by focusing on prevention and reducing health care costs.

Encouraging employees to adopt healthier behaviors 

The health system launched a campaign to encourage employees to adopt healthier behaviors. Through a pilot program, NCH implemented wellness incentives by using behavioral economics, Weiss explained. 

Employees could “buy their deductible down” by getting their physical exam, annual labs, colonoscopies, biometric screenings and flu shots. Employees enrolled in the wellness program had access to registered dieticians, cooking classes and a bevy of specialized workshops. 

In addition, NCH asked employees what other things would help them stay healthy and engaged. In response, the health system brought in additional experts to address a number of issues like raising young children, keeping a healthy marriage and preparing for retirement.   

All of these efforts led to overall lower readings of cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index, as well as a positive shift in A1C testing (used to measure sugar levels to detect diabetes). Weiss also noticed that the total number of lost days at work decreased. 

In addition, these efforts led to a 54 percent decrease in NCH’s overall health care expenditures over six years, resulting in $27 million in savings over three years. 

Once it became clear how successful NCH was at improving health while reducing costs, Weiss and his team wanted to take the program one step further and bring the successful elements to the greater Southwest Florida community. 

Learning from the Blue Zones project 

Weiss wondered what it would take to make Florida residents some of the healthiest in the country, or even the world. 

That’s when he began researching the Blue Zones Project ©, named for geographic areas Dan Buettner, a former National Geographic employee and world traveler, visited that boast healthy communities and people who often live to 100 years old. In searching for the healthiest and happiest people in the world, Buettner circled the regions in blue on a map, later referring to them as “the blue zones.” Buettner identified common traits shared, which he coined the power nine, including eating wisely, moving naturally and belonging to a community. 

After Buettner discovered the original five blue zones, other areas took note and pledged to adopt many of the same healthy behaviors in an effort to improve their community’s overall health. Today, 42 communities in nine U.S. states are certified by the Blue Zones Project ©, meaning these communities have pledged to adopt healthier behaviors to improve quality of life. 

NCH becomes first hospital to become Blue Zone certified 

Weiss had seen firsthand what adopting healthier behaviors had done for the NCH team, and traveled to some of the Blue Zone-certified areas to observe and conduct informational interviews. 

When he returned, he was sold on investing in this model of prevention, and he urged the NCH Board to support the opportunity to fund the Blue Zones project in Southwest Florida. 

The board agreed, and NCH became the first hospital or health system in the U.S. to become Blue Zone certified. 

“They [the NCH Board] took a risk, and it paid off tremendously,” Weiss said.

NCH sponsors the Blue Zones Project in Southwest Florida, partnering with worksites, schools, grocery stores and restaurants to offer the community easier access to healthy options. 

Creating healthier communities in Southwest Florida

NCH measures its progress by using the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being index. This year, for the third consecutive year, Naples had the highest well-being index of 186 U.S. communities ranked. 

Weiss emphasized the need to get to the root of individuals’ health care problems by going upstream to prevent disease before it starts. This includes education, smart marketing and making healthier options easier. Weiss acknowledged that NCH’s partnership with the Blue Zones Project is revolutionary and encourages other organizations to consider it. 

Weiss also understands the financial difficulties that come with investing in prevention instead of a hospital’s traditional model of providing care. However, he said the new model can help future generations live better lives and build healthier communities.  

“We are the leaders, and we should be the disruptors of health care,” he said. 

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