Look to local communities for answers on health policy

Look to local communities for answers on health policy
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Reading the news every day can be frustrating. Lately it seems that today’s headlines aren’t just about the problems facing our society — they’re about conflicting views on how to solve them. When it comes to improving health at a national level, it can feel like we’re moving an ever-growing boulder uphill.

As a physician, I know the road to improving health is long and complicated. It can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to tackling problems that impact the overall health of our communities, like violence, food deserts, income inequality and environmental issues.

We can’t afford to wait around for these problems to solve themselves, or for someone else to think of the solution. That’s because 60 percent of a person’s life expectancy is driven by social factors, like access to fresh foods, how easy it is to exercise and the level of crime in their neighborhood. These factors are known as social determinants of health, and though they vary from community to community, the solution remains the same.

There is some good news — while many continue to debate the best approach to health, local communities are taking matters into their own hands. I know because I’ve not just seen it happening, I’ve seen it working.

Local cities and counties are joining forces with community groups to reach residents and tackle local health issues. Through cross-sector partnerships and unique programs, communities are developing localized initiatives to address issues that have the greatest impact on their area.

Take Chester County, Pa. for example. The county suffers from high rates of poverty and chronic disease, as well as low rates of physical activity. Through their WalkWorks Chesco! program, residents were challenged to walk 1 billion steps in 2017 using an easy online tracking program. Within the first six months, Chester County, Pa. had registered more than 2,800 people, ranging from kindergarteners to older adults. The county reached their 1 billion steps goal in October, three months before their deadline.

In Mecklenburg County, N.C. the Mecklenburg County Health Department Village HeartBEAT program is working to reduce the incidence of heart disease in the area.

The program is partnering with faith-based organizations who reach more than 24,000 congregation members and 6,000 residents. Through community based social services, heart health events and wellness activities, the organization is working with residents, meeting them on their home turf to improve their heart health.

WalkWorks Chesco! and Village HeartBEAT are part of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge (HCCC), a multi-year initiative between the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) that empowers 50 small-to-mid-sized cities to make a positive health impact in their community. Mecklenburg County and Chester County were recently recognized with the Aetna Foundation Spotlight Award, which works to shine a light on innovative programs that can be replicated and scaled, and each will receive a prize to help accelerate their programs.

Change isn’t going to be easy — and it cannot be done by just one organization. It is going to take the brightest minds across sectors working together, like in Mecklenburg County and in Chester County, to improve the quality of life for all.

Dr. Garth Graham is the president of the Aetna Foundation, cardiologist, professor of medicine at University of Connecticut and former deputy assistant secretary at HHS.