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It’s Time to Connect Rural Health Equity with Community and Economic Development

Nov 14, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Katharine Ferguson, Katrina Badger

It’s time to think differently about investing in rural America and the way we approach health and equity across its diverse communities. New research and resources show the critical connection between health, rural community and economic development.

Farmland and street sign.

Next Thursday, November 21, is National Rural Health Day. You might expect the paragraphs that follow to be about hospital closures or opioids, struggling dairy farmers and falling life expectancy among rural women. These phenomena are true, so we could do just that. However this National Rural Health Day we want to challenge conventional wisdom and prompt fresh thinking about rural America, the drivers of health, and the role of community and economic development in both. From what we are learning, this broader lens is central to realizing health equity and a better rural futures.

In our predominantly urban nation, the words “rural America” often conjure images of farm country, small towns and white people living in places that once boomed and have since busted. But the real rural America is far more diverse and complex. Dr. Veronica Womack, a political scientist and advocate for black farmers, whose work has helped bring new research and investment to her rural region, is case-in-point. Womack grew up in Greenville, Alabama—population 8,000—which is part of the “Black Belt,” a largely rural region in the coastal low-land south where black folks outnumber white folks. Economic opportunity is hard to come by—and health suffers as a result—in this region where poverty, racist policies and discrimination along with systemic disinvestment persist.

All the same, Dr. Veronika Womak grew up with the idea that you give of what you have, to help those around you. No matter if what you have is not much. In Dr. Womak’s words: “If you’re not willing to share it and work for the betterment of the community, then you know, why even have it?” Womak’s experience growing up with her single mom, who worked as a nurse and spent her weekends bringing medicine and other care to elders around the community, didn’t jive with how the nation viewed her region and her people. Where others saw deficits, Womak could see assets—people willing to work hard and support each other, strong ties, and innovative ideas to get things done.

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Listening to Families and Communities to Address Childhood Obesity

Oct 31, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Renee Boynton-Jarrett

Renee Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD, believes that children’s health and well-being are intricately and inextricably connected to their family and community.

Children and their parents participate in a school activity.

When a mother walked into my health clinic five years ago with her 13-year-old daughter, she wanted to know why her daughter had gained a significant amount of weight in a matter of months. She was concerned an underlying medical condition might have caused the sudden spike her daughter’s weight. I was concerned as well. Childhood obesity is an epidemic that affects far too many children and it is linked to other serious, chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

I knew I would run tests and order blood work, but I also wanted to know what factors in her social world could have sparked the weight change. We sat down together to look at her daughter’s growth chart, see when the growth trajectory started to accelerate, and what could have been happening then. “Did anything change in your family? Do you recall anything that happened around that time?”

The mom suddenly realized that the changes started shortly after the girl’s father was incarcerated. That’s information I could not have gotten from a blood test. Nor if I had rattled off recommendations without first sitting down to listen.

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Researchers: How to Leverage Personal Data and Still Protect Privacy

Oct 24, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Paul Tarini

The popularity of app-based research studies has soared, although plunging public trust in commercial technology companies could dampen enthusiasm and upend science if researchers don’t act quickly. 

A patient goes over app-based data with her clinician.

Nefarious cases of data sharing and data breaches are in the headlines on an uncomfortably regular basis. One recent exposé found period tracking apps were sending extremely personal information about millions of women directly to Facebook without their knowledge. This comes in conjunction with all-too-frequent corporate hacks—from credit cards to electronic health records and more—that leave consumers vulnerable and scrambling to reset passwords and freeze accounts. 

It’s a constant drumbeat that is feeding a climate of concern around our data: who has it, how safe it is, what it is being used for. 

Against this tumultuous backdrop, researchers around the world are launching studies that rely on smart phone apps and other digital devices to collect data. The hope is that these digital tools—and the data we provide through them—will enable more people to participate in studies and help accelerate medical discovery. But if researchers don’t act quickly, this turmoil around data privacy could upend their work.

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How Communities are Promoting Health and Responding to Climate Change

Sep 30, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Michael Painter, Priya Gandhi

Across the United States, people are recognizing that climate change is a major threat to any vision of a healthy future. They are responding by developing solutions to not only avoid the health harms from climate change, but also actively improve health and limit climate change.

A city park offers a walking path for the community.

In Austin, Texas, city officials have grown increasingly concerned about their residents enduring more days with extreme heat. In particular, they worry that extreme heat events prevent young people from getting physical activity and harm people’s overall well-being.  

Austin leaders decided to respond by increasing green space and tree shade around some of the city’s public schools, especially those that largely serve students of color or those in lower-income neighborhoods. More trees create cooler spaces for physical activity. They also help address climate change by decreasing the need for air conditioning, which use about 6 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. Trees are effective because green space and shade reduce temperatures over heat-storing concrete.

At first glance, planting some trees may seem like a limited and short-term approach in the face of a changing global climate. Trees, however, are an important climate solution because they remove carbon from the atmosphere. Increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere causes climate change. We need more trees—lots more.

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Policy Should Never Put a Child’s Health at Risk

Sep 26, 2019, 9:30 AM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

Mother bottle feeding her young son.

When I was a full-time pediatrician, I worked at a practice in the City of Philadelphia whose primary patients were teenage mothers and their children. Most of their parents were low-income with little to no outside support. Their lives were hard. Very hard. Many of the parents (grandparents to the newborns) were forced to choose between paying rent some weeks and having enough food to feed their children and grandchildren.  

I remember in particular one mother and her infant son who came to see me after he was born. She was scared because the baby was having trouble gaining weight, due in large part to the family not being able to afford much food. His grandmother was worried; given all the research showing how critical nutrition is to developing brains, I was concerned as well. Fortunately, the practice I worked in was a collaborative one, meaning that not only did we doctors work side-by-side with nurse practitioners, but also closely with social workers. And one of our social workers immediately went to work to get this family, in which the grandmother—who was the head of the household—worked full-time, enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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Expert Guidance on What Young Kids Should Drink and Avoid

Sep 19, 2019, 10:00 AM, Posted by Mary Story, Tina Kauh

The nation’s leading health and nutrition organizations have issued evidence-based recommendations for parents, caregivers, health professionals and policymakers.

Young girl drinking from a cup.

“Should I be giving my toddler milk?”

“What’s the difference between fruit juice and a fruit-flavored drink?”

“I thought fat was good for my kids. Why should I switch my 2-year-old to low-fat milk?”

Every day, parents, caregivers, child-care providers and others struggle with questions like these about what kids should drink—and what they shouldn’t. They’re trying to do their best for kids’ health, but it’s not as easy as it may sound.

Ensuring that kids grow up healthy includes paying attention not only to what they eat, but also what they drink, especially during the early years when they are establishing their eating patterns. To do that, parents and caregivers need clear, consistent advice from health professionals about what drinks are healthiest for their kids. And policymakers need guidance so that they can create the strongest policies possible to help all children grow up healthy.

But, faced with an array of product choices and inconsistent messages about what’s healthy and what’s not, it can be challenging to know which beverages kids should drink, especially since recommendations seem to change every few months as kids get older.

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New Data on How We’re Measuring a Culture of Health

Sep 12, 2019, 10:00 AM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough, Anita Chandra

Four years ago, we introduced a Culture of Health Action Framework and measures to help us track the nation’s progress toward becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone. Today we share progress to date.

RWJF - Allen County Kansas

It’s been four years since the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), along with the RAND Corporation, began using a set of national measures to help track our journey toward a culture where every person has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible—regardless of where they live, how much they earn, or the color of their skin.

Our goals were to offer some catalytic signals of change with a focus on broader social and economic drivers of health, well-being, and equity. The initial set of measures were used to track how diverse stakeholders, including those outside the traditional health sector, were advancing health and well-being—and if and how health equity was improving.

Developing a clearer picture of what is changing via the Culture of Health measures can guide those who are working collaboratively to accelerate improvements. We offer a few highlights from recent updates to the measures (see also rwjf.org/cultureofhealth) and share some data on our progress to date.

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Using GIS Mapping for Better Health

Sep 5, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer Little

This 2018 Culture of Health Prize winner uses geography-based technology to quantify, and solve, a range of challenges.

A woman wears a helmet while riding a bike.

Since at least the 1600s, people have used maps to track and manage diseases and other health effects, and to pinpoint their causes. From plague and cholera to cancer and heart disease, this approach has been a vital tool in the public health toolbox. Maps, combined with data, are powerful because they help people visualize where disease clusters and how it interacts with the physical places in which we live. 

In the digital age, technology can be tapped to promote healthy communities in ways that have would have been impossible a decade ago. Geographic information system, or GIS, mapping is lighting new paths forward. In my rural community of Klamath County, Ore., we’ve used GIS mapping to better understand our community’s challenges and the possible solutions. Here are two case studies that illustrate how Klamath County has used GIS mapping in the past, and a third that shows how we’d like to use it in the future:

Making the Case for a Protected Bike Lane

About six years ago, the leaders of Sky Lakes Medical Center’s wellness center in Klamath Falls, which helps people manage their chronic illnesses, wanted to identify parts of town where people struggled with health. Professor John Ritter, of nearby Oregon Institute of Technology, used anonymized data for 60,000 Sky Lakes patients to create maps that revealed something surprising: Adult residents living along a corridor on the west side of town had a high incidence of obesity, a low incidence of diabetes, and tended to be on the younger side. 

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How Can We Advance Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Policies and Laws?

Sep 3, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Mona Shah

Post-doctoral researchers: We need your life experiences and academic background to inform inclusive and equitable policies. We’ll provide funding and support.

Law and policies should address, not compound, inequities. This is personal and something I carry with me.

I was 10 years old when a man in my northern New Jersey community was beaten to death outside a neighborhood cafe. Soon after, another community member was beaten and sustained brain damage. The number of victims—all of whom were of South Asian descent—grew over the years. The violence ranged from verbal abuse to brutal assaults and murder. It wasn’t uncommon for my home and other South Asian homes to be vandalized while having to hear racial slurs.

Officials denied that these attacks were hate crimes and ethnically motivated. Research and data on discrimination and hate crimes against South Asians simply did not exist, and there wasn’t much diversity among local officials. It was therefore difficult for community members to get the protection we needed. It wasn’t surprising that there were subsequent and repeated acquittals of people who perpetrated the violence. Even living in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, we didn’t feel a sense of freedom to live our healthiest lives because our laws didn’t do enough to stop racially motivated violence. It was years later when hate crime laws took effect.

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The Power of Local Data in Action

Aug 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Marc N. Gourevitch

With the City Health Dashboard, communities across the United States are using data presented on a feature-rich website to create healthier and more equitable communities. Lessons learned will help more community leaders pinpoint local health challenges and close gaps in U.S. cities and neighborhoods.

A meeting facilitator refers to a bar chart.

If you knew children born and raised in one neighborhood of your city tend to live 10, 20 or even 30 years longer than those raised in another, what kinds of questions would you ask?

Local data on social, economic, and health factors can help city planners, policymakers, and community advocates illuminate approaches to such challenges and drive change.

We heard from city leaders that there was a lack of data at the city and neighborhood level clearly showing which factors have the greatest influence on their community’s health and well-being. So we got to work and created the City Health Dashboard. Launched in 2018, the Dashboard integrates city- and neighborhood-level data from multiple national sources, providing 37 measures that address health, such as obesity rates and life expectancy, and conditions that shape health, such as child poverty, unemployment, and residential segregation. The country’s 500 largest cities—those with populations of approximately 66,000 or more—are all represented in the Dashboard, which also includes a rich set of resources to help cities take action to improve health.

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