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Strengthening the Health of Our Communities, Together

by Garth N. Graham

When it comes to health, we all live in different worlds. This may seem like a stretch, but these worlds can be merely a block apart. In fact, where you live is a greater determinant of your health than your genetics; it can determine if you are living like it’s 1916 or 2016 (CDC).

Knowing this, it is clear that if we improve the communities we live in, we can improve our own personal health and wellness. A healthy community is a strong community.

Perception vs. Reality

According to a recent survey fielded by the Aetna Foundation, most Americans today believe they are in good health, experiencing an average of five healthy days per week.

However, CDC statistics show us that this perception runs contradictory to the actual trend in Americans’ overall health. Half of all adults–around 117 million–reported having one or more chronic health conditions, and one in four adults reported having two or more chronic health conditions.

Making Our Perception of Health a Reality

With this information in mind, we at the Aetna Foundation felt the need and the responsibility to help equalize the perception of health with reality by emboldening small to mid-sized U.S. cities and counties to create a positive, tangible health impact in their communities.

Along with the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties, we launched the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge this Spring to identify best practices for achieving community health, wellness and health equity through cross-sector partnerships and innovative solutions.

Over the course of the Challenge, we will award a total of $1.5 million in prizes to participating cities, counties and federally recognized tribes that create replicable programs resulting in positive, measurable change in their community’s health.

Recognizing Early Adopters

Every community faces its own unique set of challenges, which is why we aim to inspire rather than rank cities and counties. With the Challenge, we are making sure to recognize these unique challenges and support cities and counties in creating innovative, cross-sector solutions.

We must all work together to inspire change and increase healthy behaviors. By starting in our own backyards, we can work to influence those around us. That’s why we’re engaging with partners that can address their communities’ needs from the ground up.

In doing so, we enlisted six early adopters, known as Innovator Cities, to kick off the Challenge and participate as leaders in community health improvement.

These cities and counties have chosen to lead by example. With the various programs they are deploying, they seek to create measurable change within their communities. In turn, we hope they will inspire other communities, whether they are right next door or across the country, to meet the health needs of their local communities with similar, actionable programs.

Innovator Cities: A Closer Look:

  • Tulsa City seeks to address access barriers and competing factors to the consumption of fruits and vegetables among county residents, specifically those living in communities with the greatest health disparities.
  • San Diego County will build upon the Live Well San Diego vision of healthy, safe and thriving communities by focusing on job creation, crime and safety, improving access to healthy foods, strengthening families and increasing community capacity for leadership and civic engagement.
  • Kansas City will address the physical, mental, emotional and social root causes of violence by designing citywide policy changes and activities that will impact youth and families in the geographic areas that are most in need.
  • New Haven plans to reduce the number of children with asthma exposed to secondhand smoke and other environmental pollutants and triggers through the New Haven Asthma Alliance.
  • Cleveland aims to reduce tobacco use rates by using a socioecological model for tobacco control. This model will help the city understand and address the ways in which individual health behaviors are impacted at the interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy levels.
  • Working in tandem, Durham and Cabarrus Counties seek to address nutrition, physical activity and other health behaviors in their communities. To do so, they will employ a diabetes support program and enlist the help of food pantries and Community Health Workers (CWHs), who will partner with health care providers that are focusing on healthy eating, exercise, chronic disease prevention and health monitoring within high risk populations.

The Future of Community Health: Trending Upward

Though most Americans are currently unhappy with the health of their city or county, it is heartening to know that our survey results show they still have hope for a healthier tomorrow and are willing to do their part to make it a reality.

Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Americans believe their area will become a healthier place to live in the next five years, and over nine in ten (94 percent) of Americans are willing to do something in order to have a healthier environment, including growing their own fruits and vegetables (53 percent), walking, biking or taking public transit more often (49 percent), and organizing community exercise events such as races, walks or bike rides (21 percent).

What Can You Do?

You are essential to your community, and each action you take towards creating healthier days for yourself, your friends and family and your employees can inspire others to do the same.

To do this, take stock of your daily activities in real-time to truly understand how healthy you are. Creating a food and exercise diary can help you balance the perception you have of your health versus the reality, and it can help you take action to increase your number of healthy days.

Mental health is also a key factor in your overall health. Take time to think about what makes you emotionally and mentally at your best, and carve out time in your day to enjoy those things.

Foster a strong social network that brings you confidence and happiness. Surrounding yourself with such people is shown to improve health outcomes.

Join Us!

We can all make a positive impact on our communities, and together we can move the needle of health nationwide. Cities, counties and federally recognized tribes interested in joining the Challenge can apply for the RFP here.

For more information on the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, visit www.healthiesticites.org.


About the Author

Garth Graham

Garth N. Graham

MD, MPH, FACP, FACC

Garth Graham, MD, MPH, is president of the Aetna Foundation. Dr. Graham previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he also led the Office of Minority Health.

Dr. Graham holds a medical degree from Yale School of Medicine, a master’s in public health from Yale School of Public Health and a bachelor of science in biology from Florida International University in Miami. He completed clinical training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Johns Hopkins where he trained in cardiology and interventional cardiology. He also serves as an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University Of Connecticut School Of Medicine.

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