The Global Wellness Institute™ (GWI) in partnership with Scientific American Worldview recently held an invitation-only roundtable on the topic of “The Science of Wellness: Hype or Hope?” Leaders from the medical, science, business, technology, research, media, workplace wellness, and hotel/spa worlds gathered on February 11th at the Everyday Health headquarters in Manhattan for a wide-ranging conversation on the many ways that science and evidence-based medicine are impacting the wellness industry, and how wellness (and the growing medical evidence for wellness approaches) is impacting people, traditional medicine, private companies, and public policy.
The discussion, co-moderated by Jeremy Abbate, Vice President, Global Media Alliances, Scientific American; Publishing Director, Scientific American Worldview and Susie Ellis, president and CEO of the GWI, included executives and experts from American Public Media, Cornell and Rutgers Universities, Delos, Everyday Health,The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine, Optum, Paramedical Consultants, Inc. Patients Beyond Borders, Pegasus Capital Advisors, Six Senses, SRI International, and Viacom Media Networks.
Numerous best steps forward to build a healthier world were identified—from the need for powerful public health marketing campaigns around obesity and sedentary lifestyles—to a much more intense focus on cognitive/behavioral psychology to identify a “science of lifestyle change” for a world getting fatter and sicker—to a call for more (and more appropriately designed) clinical trials on wellness approaches.
Top 10 Wellness Recommendations from the Experts
1. Simple, Provocative Public Wellness Campaigns
Some of the biggest “wellness successes” of the last century have involved powerful marketing messages (like the anti-smoking, “stop littering,” or “wear seatbelts” campaigns of the 20th century, or more recent ads visualizing how many packets of sugar reside in a can of soda). We need new health campaigns and public service announcements around weight loss, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles that are simple, inspiring, and are repeated over and over.
2. More Behavioral Sciences Research to Create a “Science of Lifestyle Change”
While medical research on the benefits of wellness approaches grabs headlines, the key to healthy populations is to begin to crack the code on helping people start—and sustain—lifestyle change. We know so little, and a more intense focus on, and new research in, the behavioral sciences and cognitive psychology (from brain plasticity to choice architecture) is critical if we ever want to create an evidence-based “science of lifestyle change and willpower.”
3. More, better-funded studies on wellness approaches
Clinical studies on wellness approaches represent the under-resourced “David” to Big Pharma’s “Goliath.” Average R&D costs for a new drug have reached $2.9 billion, while funds for wellness clinical trials are drastically less (often under $100,000)—and the GWI estimates that (Stage 3) drug trials have around 100 times the participants: roughly 50 for a wellness study, versus 4,000 for a drug trial. Without more, better-funded trials, highly respected medical organizations like Cochrane will continue to withhold positive recommendations in their meta-reviews on practices like meditation or yoga, even when there’s positive, preliminary evidence.
4. A Better Understanding of, and More Appropriately Designed, Wellness Studies
Clinical trials on wellness approaches often have unique qualities, and superimposing the double-blind model can be like fitting an “apple into an orange. ”Placebo models don’t work when participants know they’re experiencing things like meditation or exercise, and wellness approaches often involve practitioners, so can’t be uniformly replicated (or regulated) like a pill. Short studies fail to capture the most meaningful outcomes for long-term, prevention-focused approaches, and all personalized medicines, like TCM and Ayurveda, defy the randomized trial model entirely. Another problem: most current studies on wellness approaches are performed on sick people (in the hospital setting), providing a limited view of their efficacy. Greater openness to analyzing (and valuing) outcomes from studies that can’t fit perfectly into double blind, or even randomized, trial designs is needed.
5. Doctors to Expand Their Understanding of the Wellness Concept & Consult the Evidence
Despite growth in integrative medicine, the medical experts at the roundtable agreed that the vast majority of physicians still narrowly equate “wellness” with testing (i.e., mammograms, osteoporosis checks, etc.), at which point the prevention “boat” has often already sailed. And while almost all doctors turn to evidence-based medicine databases to evaluate courses of treatment, “almost none” consult those databases for studies on wellness approaches—and the lion’s share of their required continuing medical education comes via drug companies. Medical systems, insurers, and policy-makers must support more physician education around—and the “prescribing” of—wellness approaches like diet change, exercise, etc.
6. More Media Responsibility in Communicating Wellness Info
If people are unlikely to get much wellness information from doctors, they’re devouring it at media/digital channels, where there’s an explosion of reporting on the latest wellness studies and “miracle” breakthroughs. The rise of digital has been a double-edged sword: empowering people with unprecedented sources of health information (Google just reported that one in 20 searches is health-related), but also confusing them with contradictory, often uncontextualized new findings. More media responsibility, and more peer reviewing and curation of wellness studies by medical professionals is needed.
7. To Stop Putting Wellness in the “Alternative Medicine” Bracket, If We Want to Serve Millennials
Entrenched healthcare systems and older generations have viewed medicine and wellness as separate, even antagonistic, domains, but the millennial generation (and younger) views health very holistically, where wellness, diet and exercise are not “alternative,” but key pieces in a total health puzzle. Medical systems and marketers that want to reach younger generations need to embrace that new reality.
8. To Recognize That Private Companies Are Often Leading in Applying Science to Wellness: Wellness is a $3.4 trillion, consumer-driven market, and it’s private companies and public-private partnerships that are applying science to new wellness concepts the most creatively: from Delos building a lab with the Mayo Clinic to test and develop new “healthy for humans” features for the spaces people live and work in, to companies like Lighting Science creating healthy, nature-based lighting technologies, to new, billion-dollar “healthy cities” being developed globally, incorporating hospitals, education, and every aspect of healthy living.
9. Workplace Wellness to Move Beyond Generic ROI Reporting and Focus on Culture Change
Companies are adopting workplace wellness programs at an explosive rate, but so many things are holding them back: from an obsession with ROI reporting that doesn’t measure results/returns against specific program components, to new signs that employee wellness is devolving into a “have/have not” situation. For instance, top executives may be embracing meditation at the World Economic Forum, but companies are increasingly profiting from penalties exacted from the most program resistant/high-risk workers. Successful workplace wellness initiatives must think beyond the “program” and focus on honest, top-to-bottom culture change.
10. Governments to Grasp That Health Is Wealth
Policymakers often perceive “wellness” as a matter of individual decisions and wellbeing, but the physical and mental health of national populations will increasingly decide national economic and political power. Countries focusing on prevention, and who can get healthcare spending under 10 percent of GDP, will increasingly have a global advantage.