By Laura Hennen - Public Relations Principal | Digital and Social Engagement

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A fierce urgency to improve Americans’ health

November 9, 2017

Even though America spends more on health care than any other country, we have the worst health care outcomes in the industrialized world. Dr. David Williams, a renowned researcher and professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, introduced staggering statistics at a recent Humphrey School of Public Affairs event, sponsored by Blue Cross.

“The single biggest problem is that as a nation, we are not the healthiest people in the world. We should be.”
-Dr. David Williams

A major health problem

“We have a major health problem in the United States. The single biggest problem is that as a nation, we are not the healthiest people in the world. We should be. We spend more money on medical care than any other country in the world,” he said.

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Williams pointed to statistics showing how where you live, work and play has a greater influence on health than the traditional health care system. Specifically, racial and socioeconomic inequities are leading to worse health for minorities and people with lower incomes. However, he reminded the audience to bear in mind that, “this is a national challenge because all Americans are far less healthy than we could or should be.”

A fierce urgency to improve health

Dr. Williams called out a “fierce urgency” to improve America’s health outcomes.  Within that, he showed that the three factors driving socioeconomic and racial health inequities are:

  1. Lower income Americans have much poorer health than those in higher income brackets. As income rises, bracket by bracket, health also shows incremental improvements. Large racial gaps in income levels align with parallel gaps in health.
  2. Racial disparities exist across socioeconomic levels. Africans Americans consistently have lower life expectancy rates than Caucasian Americans at any level of income and education.
  3. Place matters. Where you live determines your access to high quality education, job opportunities, quality of housing, access to fresh foods and exercise, even high quality medical care. Racial segregation based on where people live exists and it is a significant cause of racial health inequities.
Strategies to improve America’s health

To overcome these challenges, Dr. Williams stressed that we must address what is causing health inequities.

  1. Provide care that addresses the social context. Identify non-medical needs of patients, connect them to local services that will address their needs. An example is medical legal partnerships, which allows a doctor to easily refer their patient to an onsite lawyer, who can help with legal needs.
  2. Start early. Evidence shows that giving children the ability to start life healthier (birth through age five) will lead to higher likelihood of health later in life.
  3. Address economic wellbeing. If you simply improve economic wellbeing, health interventions won’t be necessary, you will improve health.
  4. American innovation at its best. Innovative ways to address lack of access to healthy, fresh food are an example of this.
How to overcome these barriers

Dr. Williams said if we are going to overcome these barriers we need to raise awareness levels and find better communications strategies that will address the “empathy gap.”

“The biggest problem we face is that most Americans simply don’t care,” Williams said. “The challenge is to tell the story in a way that resonates with people and connects emotionally.”

A Blue Cross strategic focus

Blue Cross has placed a strategic focus on health equity to improve the health of all Minnesotans. The Blue Cross Foundation and the Center for Prevention have supported work that addresses many of the issues Dr. Williams discussed.

Examples of Blue Cross Trailblazers that have been honored for their work addressing barriers to health include:

Dr. David Williams spoke at the Humphrey School on October 6, 2017. View the slide deck from the presentation here. Dr. William’s full talk can be heard on SoundCloud. (Note: Dr. Williams talk begins at about the 8-minute mark.) 

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