The numbers should already be cause for alarm but are hardly given attention: 300,000 people die annually in the Philippines due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Broken down, it is 800 people daily who die of stroke, cancer, heart attack or COPD, the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing.

“But no one makes a big fuss out of it because it is ‘silent’ … they are not sensationalized like drug deaths or rape,” Dr. Anthony Leachon lamented.

Equally worrisome is that those who die of lifestyle diseases are getting younger and many belong to the poorer sector of society, the health advocate added.

Dr. Leachon was quick to bust the myth that lifestyle diseases only affect the rich, because it is they who can afford the ‘good life’, that includes consuming fatty food or indulging in night outs in bars. “The truth is lifestyle diseases are diseases of the poor and the young,” he pointed out.

The root cause of unhealthy living

To explain, he said poverty often creates a stressful environment and education is given little importance. As a result, those who are poor rarely have access to ways leading to healthy living and habits.

“They don’t eat food that is healthy. They smoke a lot, drink a lot… to forget hunger. And they have no access to preventive measures so they are prone to increased blood pressure when they eat salty food,” Dr Leachon said in an interview.

While education is crucial in addressing the state of the Filipino’s health, equally critical is inculcating healthy living in the minds of every Filipino, he said.

Factors for failure

One important lesson Dr Leachon has learned on why the Philippines has failed in its health goals is that educating the general population about healthy practices is not effective. Advocating is not enough, he stressed, because no one listens.

The solution is for Filipinos to adopt a healthy lifestyle, and that requires shaping the environment.

He cited Singapore as an example. “When you go to a country like Singapore, you are transformed. No smoking, no gum, no littering.” Violations merit steep fines.

Culture is another factor. In Japan, they consume healthy food, exercise is incorporated in everyday life, and people are not temperamental, Dr Leachon pointed out.

It must start with education, and it must start with the young, he underscored, for Fiipinos to eventually adapt a healthy lifestyle.

The Philhealth independent director representing the Monetary Board was responsible for drafting a law that would include preventive health education in the school curriculum from the primary to tertiary levels. This was signed into law by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2006.

His strategy was simple, insert topics in Health and Science subjects to put them into children’s consciousness the whole time they are in school. And do them one topic at a time – smoking, diet, exercise, etc.

But it eventually hit a snag during the term of President Benigno Aquino III, who along with the Department of Education Secretary, were heavy smokers.

Dr Leachon is pushing for schoolchildren to spend 30 minutes a day exercising, and not just once a week during flag ceremony. This requires ample space in schools, but many establishments barely have enough for classrooms and do not find this a priority.

Imposing a healthy menu in school canteens is another way to achieve healthy living goals among the young. The snag in this strategy is the impression that healthy food is expensive, which public school children cannot afford.

The checklist

In the meantime that his ideas have yet to be realized, Dr Leachon is focusing on his advocacy for healthy living by educating his patients.

And since teaching without doing is not as effective, he has turned to giving patients a checklist of things to do, and sets goals to achieve.

“Doctors should give patients goals for prevention. When they come back, they should have results.”

Dr Leachon admitted that clinicians face the challenge of effecting change that many find difficult. But as medical practitioners whose objective is not only to heal but prevent people from getting sick, it is a necessary part of being a doctor to redirect goals.

“You know it’s wrong but you don’t teach them how to do it right. Tell them what to do, and not just order them to achieve something.”

And since it is close to impossible to accomplish all that during a 15-minute consult, the smarter way is to use a checklist, the physician said.

While there are many patients who are stubborn or lazy, they are not inept, the cardiologist pointed out. “But doctors fail to motivate them. They should be inspired [to change] and not just given all the negatives.”

He uses himself as an example of someone who was able to turn his unhealthy lifestyle to something of a model healthy human being. The most important thing to achieving a goal, he stressed, is to aim for something.

“Nothing will happen if you have no blueprint for change. Goal setting is crucial.” MIMS

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Lifestyle, environment play bigger role in disease development