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The wealth in your health

INVESTING in your health and that of your family makes for a better economy, writes DR MUSA MOHD NORDIN.

The buzzword on everyone's lips today seems to revolve around the current economic crisis and how the recession looms like a threatening shadow this year.

Globally, businesses are feeling the pinch of the current credit crunch and families are similarly re-evaluating their fiscal priorities resulting in significant cuts to household spending, including healthcare.

Understandably, tough times call for brave, belt-tightening measures, but these cost-cutting measures sometimes bite deeply into personal and family healthcare spending.

By foregoing preventive care, self-medicating when they are sick and delaying visits to physicians, a patient's condition is often diagnosed at a late or end stage, necessitating hospital admissions, prolonged and radical medical or surgical interventions.

In a report by Britain's Friend Provident and the Blood Pressure Association, surveys showed that 56 per cent of people buy cheaper food as a cost-cutting measure, 15 per cent cut spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, and 21 per cent cut back on gym use in view of the economic slowdown.

In addition, 27 per cent worry more, 19 per cent sleep less and 15 per cent work longer hours as a result of economic pressure.

Another survey conducted by D2Hawkeye Inc., a medical data analytical firm on behalf of The Wall Street Journal, showed that the economic downturn has even prompted some Americans to cancel their insurance policies, hoping to save the weekly premiums for other expenses like children's school fees.

According to a recent inaugural MasterCard Worldwide Index of Consumer Purchasing Priorities, 70 per cent of the Asia Pacific region's consumers are tightening their belts to cut back on discretionary spending for the next 12 months.

Dining and entertainment (59 per cent) tops the list, followed by fashion and accessories (46 per cent), children's education (44 per cent), and personal travel (42 per cent). The finding also revealed that over 60 per cent of consumers across the region spend more than 10 per cent of their personal annual income on discretionary items, with over 11 per cent of respondents indicating that they used to spend more than 40 per cent.

These surveys reaffirm that many are making dramatic changes to their lifestyles and living habits as a result of the sluggish economy. Whilst it is praiseworthy that discretion is roping in our extravagant ways, it is worrying that in an effort to better manage personal finances, people are cutting back on the basics of good health - regular medical check-ups, vaccinations, eating healthy foods and maintaining exercise, among others.

We should instead view the lean economic circumstances as a motivator for making changes to unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking, drinking and overindulging in unwholesome foods and cultivating healthy habits.

The adage "prevention is better than cure" is the benchmark of best practice in medicine. Routine vaccinations, growth and developmental screening in children and regular check-ups in adults are examples of essential healthcare services that help prevent diseases or detect them at an early stage.

While we are unable to avoid being sick completely, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, many diseases can be cured or their symptoms and complications mitigated if the pathology is detected early.

The benefits of preventive healthcare are often immediately obvious. It prevents disease and reduces complications and deaths.

Preventive health care is a proactive action. It inspires the inculcation of a healthy lifestyle which contributes towards longevity. Consuming nutritionally balanced meals and natural foods, shunning cigarettes and alcohol, managing stress, getting sufficient rest and regularly exercising will ward off a plethora of serious diseases and endow us with longer, healthier and happier lives.

There are also many indirect benefits and spinoffs from following a regimen of preventive healthcare. In the long run, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help you avert a financial disaster.

An investment in health is undoubtedly a major and wise financial decision. One either spends a small sum of money every year to stay healthy or ends up spending a fortune down the road recuperating from preventable maladies or its inevitable complications.

Compare the small expense of regular doctor visits to the huge cost of major surgery, chemotherapy, or long-term hospice care.

Lifestyle diseases contribute significantly and disproportionately to the burden of morbidities shouldered by our healthcare system.

Individuals and families practising healthy lifestyles would relieve this heavy and unnecessary burden from our health services, empowering it to focus its services on the most needy and the very sick, thus making the health care services more relevant, effective and affordable.

Begin by focusing on the following six areas:

* Go for regular medical check-ups and health screenings
* Ensure all routine vaccinations are up-to-date
* Avoid tobacco and alcohol consumption
* Eat a balanced diet rich in natural foods
* Exercise regularly
* Manage stress wisely

* Dr Musa is a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist with Damansara Specialist Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He served in the Health Ministry for 15 years. He is Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences adjunct professor of paediatrics and also lectures at the Law Centre, International Islamic University of Malaysia. He can be contacted at musamn@
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