Between now and tomorrow, 4,100 people will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes; 230 amputations will occur in people with diabetes; and 55 people with diabetes will go blind. All of this will occur within a 24-hour period.  For many of these people working at peak-performance or even working a full-time job simply isn’t possible, which means that every day hundreds, if not thousands of people, are less productive, or worse, removed from the workforce because of a single disease.

Imagine the burdens this places on our businesses. In a single year, diabetes costs the U.S. economy $174 billion, according to the American Diabetes Association. But it’s not just diabetes that is sapping businesses’ economic resources. Every year, lost productivity due to chronic disease, like diabetes or heart disease, totals $1.1 trillion.

The reality is that the United States is on the verge of a health catastrophe that will lead to economic ruin. Half of all Americans suffer from one or more chronic disease conditions, and that number is expected to rise over the next decade. According to a 2003 Milken Institute study, diabetes cases are projected to increase by 53% by 2023. Heart disease cases will increase 41 %; lung cancer 34 %; and colon cancer 32 %.

Such a huge increase in the number of people with chronic conditions should be a warning call to all business owners, not to mention the nation overall. Businesses have a vested interest in their employees’ health – a sick employee can’t work, after all. It’s just one reason why so many businesses provide, in addition to basic health coverage, amenities like office gyms and healthier food options in their cafeterias. But as well-intended as these things are, they barely move the needle when it comes to chronic disease.

In other words, businesses are going to have to get smarter about how they view employee healthcare. Simply providing basic coverage isn’t going to be enough. Simply putting a few treadmills in the office won’t do it either. What’s required is a paradigm shift among business owners from viewing escalating employee healthcare costs as a matter of expense treatment to a matter of preservation of future talent resources.

Most of the chronic diseases I’ve already listed – type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colon and lung cancer, and hypertension – are preventable. Indeed, 75 % of the healthcare costs to the economy are attributed to preventable conditions.  We need to start talking about evidence-based programs to make Americans healthier coupled with personal responsibility. Then, we’d actually start dealing with the problem at the core – and even reduce the cost to our businesses and economy in the long run.  

What businesses need to be thinking about then is health education as the cornerstone to driving healthier habits among their workers. For instance, a preventive treatment regimen screenings for the basic stuff – heart disease, colorectal cancer, etc. – are incomplete if not accompanied by an educational component and prescriptions for exercise and nutrition and lifestyle behaviors associated with disease.  Does the patient understand why exercise is important and which exercises provide the greatest health benefits? Does she eat well?  Does she understand nutrition counts and can she identify those values that impair health, e.g., saturated fats? What unhealthy habits does he have that could lead to a serious condition down the road and how to exchange bad habits for good ones?

 Yet because workers – and Americans in general – won’t likely get a yearly checkup unless its part of their employee health plan, it’s up to business owners to insist upon health plan inclusions of focus on true, comprehensive preventive care.  

 Without real improvements in employees’ health, the future workforce could become an endangered species. As Dr. Daniel Lorber, an endocrinologist, told the New York Times in a 2006 report: “The workforce 50 years from now is going to look fat, one-legged, blind, a diminution of able-bodied workers at every level,” presuming that current trends persist.

Indeed, the impact of current trends in chronic diseases goes well beyond our present day healthcare costs and the ability of our companies to compete with a healthy, effective workforce; it threatens our very ability to operate a vibrant economy. The Milken Institute estimates that treatment costs and lost economic output due to preventable chronic disease will total $4.2 trillion in ten years. Unless businesses respond now, and get serious about requiring their employees to achieve optimal health—and provide support for the initiative—then America is headed for a workforce deficit that could cripple our nation.

This opinion column was written by Deborah McKeever, president and COO of EHE International, the recognized leader in preventive medicine since 1913. Follow EHE on Twitter @EHEIntl.