HEALTHY LIFESTYLES : Under the knife

Last year, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders underwent surgery. Was one of your employees or colleagues among them?
If not, then statistically there’s every possibility that this year may be the one. Increasingly, surgery is becoming fact of life in New Zealand.
Elective, or non-urgent surgery in particular, has seen significant rise over the past two years. Last year, 134,763 patients received elective surgery in the public system – up 12,000 on the previous year.
New Zealanders’ use of the private health sector for their surgical needs is also on the up. The New Zealand Private Surgical Hospitals Association reports that its members provided procedures for approximately 164,000 patients last year. And the country’s largest insurer Southern Cross has seen significant increases in demand for some of the most common surgical procedures.
For example, in the period to December 2009 there was an incredible 78 percent increase in the number of members claiming for shoulder surgery and 19 percent increase for knee surgery.
A contributing factor to the increase in elective surgery is our ageing population, factor which is also having major impact on the make-up of New Zealand’s workforce. Latest figures from Statistics New Zealand show that half the labour force will be older than 42 years in 2011 – up from 36 years in 1991. The proportion of the workforce aged 65 and over is expected to peak at 23 percent in 2028, up from 12 percent in 2006.
Inevitably as the workforce ages, attitudes are changing. People want to keep healthy, active and productive well beyond the traditional retirement age – and so they should.
Advances in medical procedures are also increasing surgical interventions. Procedures such as keyhole and laser surgery are less invasive, enabling shorter hospital stays and faster recovery times.
So what does this all add up to for the workplace?
Quite simply, surgery is topic likely to become “when” rather than “what if” in your office. Depending on the seriousness of the procedure, this means employers and managers will need to think about planning for an employee’s absence and how to manage their return to work. Elective surgery is now misnomer – many of these surgeries are vital to the long-term health or quality of life of the patient.
This is where private health insurance can be major benefit to employees. Many employers already recognise this and subsidise health insurance for their employees – this is the case with several hundred thousand policy holders in New Zealand. Lengthy and uncertain waits for surgery can impact on an employee’s health, well-being and productivity in the workplace. Often it is not even the employee that is going under the knife – there is likely to be detrimental effect on an employee if their partner or child is awaiting surgery too.
Private health insurance allows patient to gain rapid access to the services they need. Specialist visits, the actual surgery itself and follow-up appointments can all be scheduled to minimise disruption and downtime at work and in life.
So what can you as manager do to limit the impact of surgery on the workplace?
As with every aspect of good business practice, clear communication and planning is key.

Before the surgery
Before the staff member goes in for surgery, find out:
• The employee’s expected absence from work.
• What their expected recovery time is and whether they will be limited in any respect upon their return. Be aware there is no set standard – recovery times for more complex surgery especially can vary widely according to the procedure, severity of the condition, health/age of the patient and whether any complications arise.
• Be mindful of privacy – The employee has right to privacy around their health issues and may not wish to share certain information. Your questions should be related to the employee’s duties and leave requirements.

After the surgery
• When the operation is over, keep informed on how the employee is progressing.
• Part-time work, flexible hours or changes in duties may be required during the employee’s recovery.
• Some surgeons may supply letter to the employer outlining expected recovery and duties the employee can do.

Keeping productivity high
An area that many in the health industry have been focused on for some time now is trying to get an exemption from Fringe Benefit Tax for employers who subsidise their employees’ health insurance premiums.
There is currently an anomaly in that there is no FBT on accident insurance (ACC) but it is applied to health insurance. Providing an exemption from FBT to health insurance premiums would deliver some welcome relief for those employers who invest in health insurance subsidies for their staff.
It is believed the Government would also see strong payback through increased uptake in the private sector freeing up space in the public system. Some low-cost health and wellness programmes are already exempt from FBT.

Peter Tynan is chief executive Health Insurance, Southern Cross Medical Care Society.

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