CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove apologized to employees for any “hurtful” comments connected to a recent national discussion he’s led about obesity, personal responsibility and health care.
“During the past weeks, I participated in several forums where the focus has shifted from healthcare reform to the subject of obesity,” Cosgrove stated in a memo sent this week to staff. “My objective was to spark discussion about premature causes of death, but some of my comments were hurtful to our community. That was certainly not my intent, and for that I apologize.”
Cosgrove has used the costs and health problems related to obesity to try and push the concept of personal responsibility and greater wellness incentives further into the national debate on health care reform. He started provocatively in a New York Times article last month, saying that he would stop hiring the obese if he could.
He later backed off, saying that he meant to say he was concerned more about the problem of obesity and not about obese people themselves. However, critics confronted him at the Clinic’s own Obesity Summit last week and accused him of creating a “bias mentality” against fat people, and the debate over the topic of weight — and Cosgrove’s comments — raged online and in Cleveland-area print media.
In his message to staff this week, he framed his battle as one not against the obese but against a broad array of “lifestyle choices” — some of which also lead to obesity.
“Lifestyle choices that include smoking, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are key contributors to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” he stated. “I feel strongly that we can lower this by working together and helping our communities through education and programs that enable people to lead healthier lives.
“As one of the nation’s largest medical centers, Cleveland Clinic has evolved into a leader advocating for healthcare reform that emphasizes wellness and prevention — a shift from ‘sick care’ to ‘health care’. For too long, our healthcare system across the nation has focused on treating diseases rather than preventing them.
“Those of us who care for patients are deeply motivated to heal, but medicine and surgery can only go so far,” he added. “There is much more we could do to prevent chronic diseases if we take measures to eat healthier, exercise and quit smoking.”
What’s left unanswered is whether Cosgrove will continue to seize the spotlight to insert personal responsibility and wellness promotion further into the national debate on health care. It’s likely that most people are in agreement with him over lifestyle issues, but the apology is a clear signal that his provocative tone has sent the debate careening in another direction.