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New Study Targets Health Problems, Early Deaths Of LEOs With Unique Peer-Group Approach

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A prominent medical researcher has launched a landmark study he hopes will change the grim facts that LEOs have a higher incidence of illness and death related to cardiovascular disease than the general population, and suffer unnecessary musculoskeletal injuries and disabilities.

With the help of 2 sheriff’s offices and 2 police departments in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Kerry Kuehl is testing whether a prevention program based on unique peer-led groups can help officers improve their quality of life and reduce their disease and disability rates while also cutting healthcare costs associated with premature illness and injury.

Final findings are intended to yield a model program that can be successfully adopted by law enforcement agencies nationwide and beyond, says Kuehl, a physician, behavioral-change expert, and associate professor of medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

“LEOs are a high-risk group for occupational injuries and illnesses,” the researcher recently told Force Science News. “They commonly experience musculoskeletal injuries, fatigue- and stress-related disorders, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, including a higher prevalence of high blood pressure. Their life expectancy is less than the average American by 5 to 15 years, depending on the research study cited.

“Yet as an occupation, law enforcement has received only limited study, and few agencies have health promotion/harm reduction programs, despite a demonstrated need and the reasonable conclusion that occupational wellness is critical to recruiting and maintaining an effective workforce.”

Previously, Kuehl and colleagues demonstrated a successful worksite health promotion and lifestyle intervention research program among firefighters called PHLAME. Its primary goals were eating healthily, being more physically active, and achieving and maintaining appropriate body weight.

Besides meeting those objectives, the low-cost, easily implemented program resulted in immediate economic benefits, with a 33% reduction in injury and disability claims that translated into savings of more than $1,000 per firefighter.

With a team that includes “occupational physicians, a stress psychologist, a police psychologist, a tobacco-prevention expert, and a fatigue-and-safety expert,” Kuehl created a law enforcement-specific adaptation of that program called SHIELD (Safety and Health Improvement: Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments). A small demonstration project, involving 7 officers in the Vancouver (WA) PD traffic division, showed promising results. After 3 months, those volunteers produced “improved cardiac-risk profiles, including a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

On Aug. 1, Kuehl initiated an expanded study, which ultimately will stretch across 4 years and involve 500 officers from PDs in Vancouver and Salem (OR) and SOs in Marion County (OR) and Clark County (WA).

After comprehensive physical exams and tests, participants will be divided into 2 broad categories, Kuehl explains. Half will receive detailed advice from doctors as to changes that need to be made in their habits to improve their health, and they will be told of resources that can help them. “Then they are on their own to make the changes,” Kuehl says.

The other half will be divided into 4- to 6-person teams at their agencies and enter into a 12-week information-and-support program, conducted at their work sites by a trained peer “squad leader” following a prepared script. These teams will meet for 45 minutes each week to receive and discuss instruction on how to achieve specific wellness goals, such as:

  • being physically active (exercising) at least 30 minutes a day
  • eating 7-9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily and otherwise improving diet
  • achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight
  • avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol
  • sleeping an average of at least 7 hours a day
  • employing stress-reduction techniques and seeking help for stress-related problems.

All the volunteers will be re-examined and re-tested for health changes at 6-month intervals. Based on his experience with some 600 firefighters, Kuehl expects that the officers working in teams will show far greater success at breaking old bad habits and sustaining new good ones than those participants who were left on their own after receiving physician advice.

“Typically only about 3% of people change when a doctor tells them to,” Kuehl explains. “Officers on a team can help each other. Cops already watch each other’s backs on calls when it comes to dealing with dangerous criminals. Now they can watch each other’s backs on health issues. Plus, we’ll build some team competition into the process as an incentive.”

Once officers learn and reinforce new behavior via the innovative team approach, they will be better equipped and motivated to carry through with healthful habits on their own, Kuehl believes. And they’re likely to encourage a wellness lifestyle among family members and co-workers.

After an initial phase of pilot-testing, curriculum tweaking, and then a full-scale roll-out of testing and instruction, participants’ behavior and results will be tracked for 2 years, Kuehl says. Based on a thorough analysis of findings, “we expect to produce a cost-effective, evidence-based model program that stresses prevention of health-related problems—and one that works, reducing illness and injury costs so more officers can be retained and hired,” he says. “Now more than ever, we need to protect our law enforcers so they can protect our communities.”

Kuehl’s research is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and prevention. You can learn more at the OHSU Health Promotion and Sports Medicine website: www.phlameprogram.com

[Thanks to Dr. Bryan Vila, criminal justice professor at Washington State University-Spokane, for bringing this study to our attention.]

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