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A health-care provider itself, the Eye Centers of Florida knows it's important to educate the public-and its employees-about good health. That's why its decision to join The Wellness Center of Cape Coral, an affiliate of the Lee Memorial Health System, was a perfect fit for employees.

"By offering wellness as a benefit, we help to instill our concept of wellness, which leads to more educated and healthier employees," says Patty Wilson, human resource manager for the Eye Centers of Florida, which has offices in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Lee and Sarasota counties.

In Southwest Florida, businesses of all sizes are active members of the area's few wellness centers. The centers, most of which are affiliated with local hospitals, offer fitness facilities, special clinical programs, one-on-one disease management with dieticians, exercise counselors, physicians and nurses, and more for members.

According to The Wellness Councils of America, businesses nationwide lose about $800 billion annually in hidden, indirect health and safety costs. Wellness programs, some say, contribute to greater worker productivity and profits, and a healthier corporate culture. Critics say that employees should be accountable for their health and it's not the employer's responsibility to keep them healthy.

Some firms also attest to the financial benefits, saying that investing in wellness programs can help control health-care costs. Jill Godette, benefits specialist at the Edgewater Beach Hotel & Club in Naples, says that being a member of The Whitaker Wellness, Nutrition & Health Center provides "not only a nice benefit to offer to our employees but it also reduces our medical claims because we are a self-insured company. Our employees are happy because they are staying healthier, and we are making a smart business decision by improving our bottom line."

With more than 350 business members, The Whitaker Wellness Center, which has facilities in Naples and Bonita Springs, is part of the NCH Health Care System. "These days businesses are taking wellness more seriously because of rising medical costs, and they are beginning to understand that prevention is the best medicine," says Greg Camp, director of the center, which has a staff of 80. The center's business members receive discounted rates of $70 for the initial fee and $37 per month. In addition, some businesses also pay all or part of employees' initiation fees.

Companies such WCI Communities, Eye Centers of Florida and Island Coast Orthopedics take advantage of the programs at The Wellness Center, which is located at Cape Coral Hospital.

Clinical staff and exercise physiologists at the center conduct a variety of physical assessments to help members best determine their individual needs and manage health conditions and illnesses. "Thousands of people in Lee County suffer from illnesses that can be prevented or improved through regular physical activity and diet," says Mary Hampton-Winter, director of membership, marketing and spa services for The Wellness Center. Special programs include cardiopulmonary rehab, managing osteoporosis, and Moms in Motion, designed to teach pregnant women how to improve strength and endurance needed during labor and delivery.

Naples doctor Caroline Cederquist offers nutrition and structured exercise with customized behavioral and medical management through The Cederquist Medical Wellness Center. Local businesses have referred employees who are seeking to overcome heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol to the center. The comprehensive medicine program calls for patients to work with those including a dietician, therapist, exercise counselor, physician and nurse practitioner. "We have a health-care crisis in this country, and the earlier we can detect the problem and begin to treat it, the better the chances are for future prevention," says Cederquist.

"A key member of my organization was having trouble meeting her full potential. Her health was limiting her abilities, energy and self-esteem. I directed her to Cederquist," says Joe Waite, president of Platinum Coast Dry Cleaners in Naples. "Not only is she now healthier and happier, but she is able to perform her job at a higher functioning level."

As an incentive to get businesses thinking about wellness programs for their employees, group discounts are available.

With rising obesity rates in America, several centers have healthy eating programs. Cederquist has also recently launched a food line called "Dr. Cederquist's Good for You Gourmet" for busy professionals. Whitaker's "Healthy Plate" program lasts 12 weeks and includes a book, weight-loss log and recipes.

"The goal is to be preventive rather than reactive," says Camp, whose Whitaker center also offers programs for osteoporosis, diabetes self management, spa services, personalized nutritional counseling, cancer wellness, and yoga, aerobics, strength training, and body toning and sculpting. "I like to think that we are creating a halo effect for people in the community by offering a continuum of care from inpatient to outpatient with the main goal being prevention."

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