Geography plays a vital role in determining the health, wellbeing, and life expectancy of the more than 325 million people in the United States. To create a future where everyone has an equal opportunity to live the healthiest life possible, local communities must tackle the non-medical factors that have the most impact on how long and how well people live.
Based on my personal and professional experiences, community-driven solutions and actions are the most effective ways to move the needle on public health issues. These actions have to be locally driven and measured, but can connect to a national approach. At the Aetna Foundation, we believe local communities play the most vital role in developing solutions that can help increase the use of preventative care and decrease the impact of chronic disease.
This year, in collaboration with U.S. News & World Report, we launched our inaugural “Healthiest Communities" rankings, measuring the health and wellness of nearly 3,000 counties across America in 10 different categories. The rankings provided us with a clearer picture of the health disparities that exist in different communities across the country. The most notable health gaps that emerged between high- and low-ranked communities are primarily in education, income, access to healthy food, and public safety. Understanding these inequities allows us to continue refining our approach to working with communities and building on proven models that lay the groundwork for meeting the health needs of the future.
There are three key factors for communities that can positively shape the future of health: awareness, access, and action. Together, these three elements will close the health divide and build a sustained culture of health, one community at a time.
Increasing Awareness About Social Determinants
Many people think good health is determined by access to doctors and treatment. While access to care is important, only 10 percent of factors impacting premature death are related to clinical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What’s more, 60 percent of individuals’ health is determined by behaviors and social, economic, and environmental factors, such as safe outdoor spaces, affordable transportation, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, among many others.
For this reason, it’s important that individuals are aware of and understand their unique health needs and how their community is shaping their individual health. Studies like the Healthiest Communities rankings and continued research on the social determinants of health by the CDC and other health organizations can help educate people and provide ongoing assessments.
Communities must also ensure residents are aware of the healthy resources and opportunities already available to them. If people are unaware of the parks, trails, farmers’ markets, social services, and recreational spaces around them, what good do they do?
Creating Access to Resources
Once people identify and acknowledge the factors that impact their health needs, communities must ensure the resources required to address them are both available and affordable to every individual. There’s a wealth of research showing that individuals who live in areas with limited economic means also lack access to education, employment, healthy food, and a host of other resources. This is where tackling inequity matters the most.
The Aetna Foundation has several community grant programs that address some of these major public health threats, such as food insecurity, opioid abuse, and social isolation. Beyond simply funding these programs, we work collaboratively with community organizations to make sure there is a strategy in place for how funding will be used to maximize value and to develop initiatives that are impactful, scalable, and focused on improving health among underserved populations.
Driving Action Through a Local Approach
Finally, everyone—from elected officials and local businesses to schools and nonprofit organizations—can and must play a role in charting a course to a healthier future.
Many health policies currently carried out at the national level make local action an uphill battle, mostly because they are based on universalism and not tailored to the specific needs of individual communities. To meet the needs of the future, our nation must take a local approach.
Communities are encouraged to focus on proven strategies and best practices to nurture meaningful action and enhance their chances of success. Individuals and organizations must implement activities based on the expertise and resources they bring to the table. For example: an individual can take the time to understand both the local assets that may improve their health and the social and environmental issues that may be deleterious to their health; an elected official can push for smoke-free policies in public housing; a local church can offer their building to host a health fair or fitness class for community members.
I am optimistic that the combination of these efforts will create more conversations and opportunities that will have a lasting impact on health for generations to come.