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Patients Are The Key To Reducing Chronic Disease In America

Ken Thorpe, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, and is admired and respected by many of the “movers and shakers” in Washington. The outpouring of appreciation for his work was quite evident during the recent half day-conference entitled, “Fighting Chronic Disease: The Missing Link In Health Reform.” I had the chance to speak with Ken to get his thoughts on chronic disease and health reform.

Dr. Val: What are the most important things that the general public needs to know about chronic disease?

Dr. Thorpe: Two things. First of all, they need to know whether or not they have a chronic disease. For example, about a third of diabetics in the country don’t know they have diabetes. So Americans need to be screened appropriately for potential chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Second, if you do have a chronic disease, there are simple ways to manage it. Management needs to be coordinated through a primary care physician. Basic things like blood pressure and blood sugar need to be monitored on a regular basis. Diet and exercise are also a critical compenent of chronic disease management. The good news is that most chronic illnesses are manageable, but patients need to be actively engaged in their health. Medication compliance and consistent lifestyle modification under the care of a PCP is the way to go.

Dr. Val: What should people know about the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease?

Dr. Thorpe: We want to get patients (or “consumers”) involved as a voice for healthcare reform. Patients are the key to making our healthcare system simpler, less-expensive, and less administratively complex. We believe that health reform is possible. We must not become frustrated with our inability to fix everything today, but if we start with the right set of issues and really work collaboratively to solve them, we really can make life better for patients and physicians.

The patient community should go to our website and learn the facts about chronic disease and help to educate their local politicians and community leaders about it. I would encourage them to spearhead community-based interventions to promote weight loss and prevent obesity. We just released a book about “best practices” for achieving healthy behavior modifications. It is full of local program ideas to help prevent chronic disease – and it’s all based on initiatives that have a proven track record of success. Our best practices book is an ideal guide to community-based interventions that can make a difference.

Dr. Val: You say that we need a different delivery model to treat chronic disease. Can you explain that?

Dr. Thorpe: Chronic disease management requires a team-based model. Nurses, social workers, and mental health providers should work with patients at home. We need a more proactive model where we engage patients in managing their disease so that we can prevent unnecessary flare ups. For example, with diabetes, if you don’t control your blood sugars on a daily basis, you’re far more likely to go on to require a limb amputation. Our current delivery system does not allow this type of management – interacting with nurses at home, for example – because nobody pays for it. So we need a different payment model and a different delivery model.

Dr. Val: Do you think that online health websites can make a difference?

Dr. Thorpe: I think that online programs should engage people in education – so that they can understand the connection between weight, diet, exercise, smoking, and chronic illness. Only 15% of the population understands the gravity of these issues and how it affects the cost of their health insurance.

Online sites that allow people to track their progress (and chart how they’re managing their disease) may also help people to become more actively engaged in their healthcare.

Dr. Val: How can we encourage people to adopt healthy behaviors?

Dr. Thorpe: Incentives always work. We have to give better tools to people who want to change their behaviors. We have to make it easier for them to manage their health at their places of work. For example, some employers conduct health risk appraisals with their employees and then put together care plans and even have a nurse practitioner available at the work place to check on progress. That way the employees don’t have to take time off work to see the physician after hours.

We can also make a difference in schools – we need consumer advocates to continue to demand healthier school lunch programs and increased physical activity for kids. Consumer advocacy at the community level is critical to our success in the prevention and management of chronic disease.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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