adjective \ ,e-p?-’de-mik\

Affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time. (Source: Merriam-Webster)

Typically associated with negative outcomes and deadly diseases, epidemics are on the rise across America. In the last decade, obesity, prediabetes and hypertension have all risen to epidemic proportions, as 1 out of every 3 Americans age 20 and older has prediabetes; 1 in 3 has hypertension; and more than one-third of U.S. adults are considered obese.

These three health conditions, often undiagnosed and untreated, account for approximately $266 billion in annual U.S. medical costs and contribute to hundreds of thousands of deaths per year. There are nearly half a million people unaware that they have prediabetes in the Novant Health footprint alone.

Separately, each health condition is dangerous. Together, they are a deadly combination for a downward spiral of health. Hypertension, diabetes and obesity contribute to an alarming number of health complications including heart disease, cancer and stroke — each among the top five leading causes of death for both men and women.

The good news is these preventable killers can be thwarted or controlled in simple ways. In fact, small changes can make a big difference and a recent landmark study supports this claim. The medical journal The Lancet reported that people at risk for diabetes can lower their risk of heart disease nearly 10 percent just by walking one mile per day.

At Novant Health, accepting the rise of serious health epidemics is not an option. Since 2010, the organization has sought to “search and rescue” patients in its hospitals from undiagnosed diabetes — identifying nearly 6,000 patients with previously undiagnosed diabetes as a result. 

In early 2014, the health system announced it is expanding its efforts by attacking high blood pressure, prediabetes and obesity as part of a multi-year, system-wide community wellness initiative designed to create a new kind of epidemic: an epidemic of wellness.

“The power of community engagement and the purpose of the Novant Health community wellness initiative are to inform, educate and activate citizens in managing their wellness,” said Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, Novant Health lead executive for the initiative.

As part of the initiative, Novant Health committed to screening 500,000 people for the three serious risk factors across the four states it serves in 2014.

In partnership with Novant Health physician clinics, all Novant Health patients will be screened including 100 percent of those receiving free care, and the system will host a series of health events throughout the year.

Novant Health believes a shift in thinking is necessary in our communities to move healthcare consumers toward a path of true wellness. Instead of going to the doctor or hospital when a problem has occurred, consumers must now, more than ever, be proactive with their well-being. Many people simply do not know that they have prediabetes and hypertension. Others who are obese do not acknowledge the health consequences until it is too late.

Hospitals and medical clinics must shift to being institutes of wellness — promoting and fostering healthy habits and behaviors to prevent ailments requiring medical attention. Through engagement, education and empowerment, a new epidemic of wellness must be created.