Dr. David Agus

The $20 book that companies are betting could save them $100,000 or more

January 17, 2014: 12:15 PM ET

CBS, Michael Dell, and others are giving David Agus's A Short Guide to a Long Life to their employees to encourage good health.

By Caroline Fairchild, reporter

FORTUNE -- Dr. David Agus admits he is not good at treating advanced diseases. A cancer doctor and author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller The End Of Illness, Agus says he is tired of telling patients that he has run out of ways to combat their chronic condition. Instead, Agus would like to prevent these diseases from happening in the first place. His new book A Short Guide to a Long Life explores the simple idea that a healthy tomorrow starts with good habits today.

His message, it appears, is resonating in corporate America. Companies such as CBS (CBS), Paramount, and Anthem Blue Cross, along with Dell CEO Michael Dell, are buying the guide en masse for their employees in the hopes that improving employees' health today could save the companies money down the road.

The illustrated health book offers 65 tips -- ranging from getting a flu shot to eating more fish to working on your posture -- that Agus suggests can delay, and in some cases entirely prevent, chronic diseases ranging from obesity to diabetes to dementia. You've probably heard most of the suggestions at least once from your mother, a concerned friend, or a busybody colleague. But most of us haven't incorporated them into our lives. As Agus explains, preventive health care can be a hard sell. People want to live the life they choose today and worry about the consequences later.

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That outlook is partly to blame for not only the prevalence of chronic disease in America, but also for problems in the health care system. Roughly 75% of health care dollars are spent treating chronic diseases, which are the cause of death for seven out of every 10 Americans. In total, such diseases cost the economy $1 trillion annually both in medical costs and lost productivity, creating a significant issue for employers providing health insurance for their employees.

In an attempt to prevent these medicial costs from rising even more in the future, companies are taking action by investing in their employees' health now. Says Agus: "It is one of those perfect storms where if you can just prevent one disease well everybody wins: the individual, the corporation, and the insurer. That's the goal here."

Michael Dell personally purchased about 1,000 copies of the book for executives at Dell, as well as for employees at MSD Capital, his wealth management firm, and his family foundation. Dell Inc. already offers onsite nurses, health clinics, fitness centers, and treadmill desks globally as part of its larger We Are Dell wellness program. The company also subsidizes healthy food in its cafeteria. Ultimately, says Michael Dell, the programs come together to create a great "double bottom line" return on investment as employees are empowered to improve their health.

"We are passionate about health and the vital role better information can play to improve outcomes and reduce cost," Dell says.

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The math behind purchasing the Short Guide is almost as simple as the book itself. The guides cost roughly $20 each. About 1,000 copies of the book cost Dell $20,000. If just one employee reads the book and changes his or her lifestyle enough to prevent a heart attack, the company will avoid $78,000 in future health care costs, according to Agus. If one employee avoids colon cancer, those savings balloon to more than $110,000.

Other companies have made even larger corporate purchases. CBS, which owns Simon & Schuster, distributed about 15,000 copies of the book to educate and engage its employees about health, according to a company statement. (Lest you think CBS is merely trying to pump up sales of one of its own titles, a spokesperson points out that this is the first book the company has purchased from the publisher for all of its full-time employees.)

Paramount and Anthem Blue Cross also made corporate purchases of the book, according to a Simon & Schuster spokesperson. (Neither company responded to requests for comment at press time.)

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Of course, buying Agus's book is only one of many ways companies are investing in preventive health care for their employees. Corporate wellness programs that help employees deal with chronic disease save $3.78 per dollar invested, according to a recent study from the nonprofit policy think tank RAND. More than 90% of U.S. employers with 50,000 workers or more and half of those with at least 50 workers offered a wellness program in 2012.

Still, corporate wellness and preventive medicine have their skeptics. Most programs come with a long list of pros and cons depending on the incentives companies put in place to get workers to participate. Financial-based incentives, for example, are lauded by some and criticized by others. Also, with more and more employees changing workplaces every couple of years, it is hard to measure the return on investment of one wellness program or another, Agus says. The only immediate benefit to wellness programs is seen in workers who are grateful that their employer cares about their health.

"You want to take care of your employees because the goal is to keep them there for their career," he says.

The book, which was released on Jan. 7th, is slated to hit the New York Times Bestseller list at No. 11 in the advice section later this month, according to a representative from Simon & Schuster.

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