Are we giving preventive screening the attention it deserves?

We have a weighty problem to solve – here is the first step in taking on the challenge. Picture: Independent Newspapers.

We have a weighty problem to solve – here is the first step in taking on the challenge. Picture: Independent Newspapers.

Published Apr 3, 2024


By: Mosima Mabunda

Do we think we are healthier than we are? A lack of knowledge about health status may be reflected in the alarming upward trend of high-risk health metrics we see globally and among our Vitality members. We do not always consider that our health status now is a fundamental part of a healthier future. People who know their health can take action to address risks by making healthy lifestyle changes and they can access treatment sooner.

Regular health screenings are a powerful habit for early detection of illness. The Vitality Health Check, for instance, provides a snapshot of health risks across five key measures: blood pressure, blood glucose, blood cholesterol, weight status, and smoking status. In a Vitality analysis on health checks, released in March, we saw that compared with 2019, more people (Vitality members) had high cholesterol levels (up 18%), blood glucose levels (up 12%), and unhealthy weight status (up 8%) in 2023.

This research found that 73.8% of the people with at least one high-risk metric, have either a high-risk weight status (measured through a combination of weight for height and waist circumference) or weight combined with another high-risk outcome. Interestingly, high-risk outcomes increased more among females between 2019 and 2023 than among males – there was a 13% increase of at least one high-risk outcome among females and a 4% increase among males. Overall, however, males still had the most high-risk metrics in 2023.

These high-risk health metrics indicate a higher risk for cardiometabolic diseases. Among them, cardiovascular diseases caused 19.8 million global deaths in 2022, of which 34% were in people younger than 70. Similarly, diabetes affects 529 million people, and in 2019, it was the leading underlying natural cause of death in South Africa. It’s time for South Africans to realise these numbers represent you and me, our families, and the communities who are at risk.

Health screening is the first step to connect to care for cardiometabolic diseases

Early detection through health checks can be a game-changer in mitigating the impact of these diseases. We see that Vitality members with high-risk metrics are 11 times more likely to register for treatment of a chronic illness within three months of completing their first Vitality Health Check; meaning they become aware of and take action to address health risks by accessing treatment.

Yet, a significant portion of the population is not screening enough. This was seen from a 38.9% participation rate in the NHS Health Check in 2022/3 in England, and Vitality’s data showing six out of 10 Vitality members have not completed a health check in three years.

Understanding health risks can empower people to make healthier choices

It’s pertinent to note that completing a health check is not just a box-ticking exercise; it can change lives. Members of Vitality who have a health check, for example, show significantly higher engagement in healthy behaviours, such as increased physical activity and healthier eating habits. Those who completed a health check, compared with those who didn’t, registered 72% more active days in 2023 and bought 19% more healthy food items.

What’s good to note is that Vitality members who increased their Vitality status between 2019 and 2023 by engaging in healthy behaviours, showed an improvement in all their high-risk outcomes. This demonstrates the effectiveness of healthy lifestyle behaviours in mitigating health risks.

What did Vitality see about the health of our members across cities? Johannesburg had the lowest percentage of high-risk weight status and blood cholesterol. Durban had the lowest percentage of smokers, but the highest percentage of high-risk blood glucose. Gqeberha had the highest percentage of high-risk weight status, blood pressure, and smokers.

The Vitality research presents a clear story: health checks are a cornerstone of preventive healthcare and are critical for detecting health risks and connecting people who are at risk to much-needed care. It is also important to address the factors that prevent people from having health screenings, which can include a belief that you are currently healthy, time constraints, or emotions such as fear or anxiety.

Everyone should be encouraged to screen. It’s possible to complete a health check at various private and public healthcare facilities across the country. For Discovery clients, these screenings are provided at a Discovery Store, Dis-Chem, Clicks, and other pharmacies and doctors. Once we accept health screening as a necessary part of our lives, we will reap the tangible benefits of good health as a collective, one health check at a time.

* Mabunda is the Head of Wellness at Discovery Vitality.