Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini surprised many Techonomists at our conference in Tucson last month with his frank talk about alternative therapies and the need for the current health system to be "creatively destroyed." Who would have thought the top man at one of the nation's largest health insurance companies would be an advocate for craniosacral therapy and meditative chanting?
Bertolini's onstage interview with David Kirkpatrick focused mostly on his innovative approaches to apps and technology at the company. But in a later on-camera conversation, Bertolini described how his progressive personal health practices jibe with his company's mission.
Aetna policy presently excludes yoga, meditation, and craniosacral therapy from coverage "because there is inadequate evidence in the peer-reviewed published medical literature of their effectiveness." But Bertolini says that, after discovering that Aetna employees whose stress levels rank highest spend $2,500 more per year for healthcare, the company recruited 200 of them to participate in a 12-week mindfulness meditation and yoga study. The results, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, show that the traditional Eastern medicine practices reduce stress—as measured by heart rate variability and levels of the stress hormone cortisol—and, consequently, medical costs.
Since then, 6,000 Aetna employees and clients have completed the free program, he says. "We know this stuff works," Bertolini says. "We believe in this, it's just building the evidence base."
The CEO says he has dropped 48 pounds since changing his diet and no longer consuming eggs and dairy products, after blood tests revealed he has a sensitivity to them. He is also an advocate of naturopathy and integrative nutrition. Many conventional doctors dismiss the effect of nutrition on immune health, he says. "I look at my allopathic doctor and say, 'You're 30 pounds overweight. How's your nutritional therapy working for you?'"
Bertolini is optimistic for systemic change, however: "We've got to challenge the norm by introducing programs and getting people to try it…. We've just got to keep pushing that agenda."
Indeed, there's a big financial incentive for the insurer. More than one-third of Aetna customers are obese. "They drive 60 percent of our healthcare costs," Bertolini says.
To combat an obesity epidemic that is now global, the company now seeks to influence the food supply. Included in the $20 million that the Aetna Foundation gives annually is funding for Wholesome Wave, that connects underserved communities in 28 states with local agriculture. "For every person who goes using food stamps to a store and buys healthy food, we give them a voucher to a local farmers' market to double up on that food," Bertolini says.
Changing the food supply is key to getting in front of the obesity problem, he says. "And it's not just sugar and fat, it's what are the foods that you're sensitive to as a human being, and what does that do to your immunology and how do you react to it? … We've got a Physicians Desk Reference for all these drugs; we've got a PDR in Europe for supplements, but we don't have a PDR for food, and we consume more of that than we consume of supplements and of drugs. So I think it's as big an issue."
His ancient-wisdom ideas just could be more revolutionary for healthcare than any advances technology. We'll watch his progress with interest.