Garth Graham, MD, MPH, will deliver the opening keynote address at the Dialogue for Action® conference. Dr. Graham is president of the Aetna Foundation and a national authority on health disparities.
We talked to Dr. Graham about his work to improve health equity across the country and what he’s looking forward to discussing at the Dialogue for Action® conference.
Q: What do you mean when you say there are social determinants of health? What is the impact of not addressing the health and wellness of all communities?
A: There are certain aspects of our social infrastructure that can determine a person’s health that occur outside of the doctor’s office. These social determinants of health include access to transportation, housing, education and community safety, just to name a few. They vary between communities across the country, and these factors can ultimately end up affecting health and longevity. By addressing the health and wellness of all communities, we improve how long and how well people live in their local communities across the nation.
Q: What are some barriers to improving the health of underserved communities?
A: There are a variety of barriers preventing the country from reaching the goals of community health and improving the outcomes in underserved communities. For example, we now know that your zip code matters more than your genetic code in driving health outcomes. A lot of this is related to those social determinants of health at the community level. Factors such as making sure that individuals have access to healthy foods, safe places to engage in physical activity, including walkability and bike-ability, a living wage, education, good housing and an environment that includes safe air and water all have a powerful impact on your health. By removing these barriers, we will be able to improve health outcomes community by community.
Q: What types of projects can help improve health equity?
A: One of our key initiatives is the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, which is a partnership between the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of Counties (NACo). The Challenge is designed to create economically competitive, inclusive and equitable communities and recognize cities and counties that show measurable improvements in health indicators and social determinants of health in their local communities. Fifty cities and counties were chosen out of hundreds of applicants last year for identifying unique health problems in their communities and creating localized programs to help solve them. From improving community safety, increasing access to fresh produce, providing more ways for people to lead active lifestyles and more, these communities are leading the charge in helping to address social determinants of health. We hope some of these programs will become scalable solutions that can be replicated across the country in communities facing similar health issues.
Q: What are you most looking forward to at the Dialogue for Action® conference?
A: I am looking forward to an engaging dialogue with health care leaders on how we can improve public health, and furthering the conversation on how access to care and preventive measures can help bridge the health equity gap. I always come away having learned something new that brings the patient experience to life or creating new connections for the future – I have no doubt that will be the case at this conference.
Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?
A: I hope that the audience can gain a better understanding that providing quality care requires a 360-degree approach to treatment. Where a person lives and what they experience in their lives – from the green spaces where they play outside, to the distance to the nearest grocery store, to the safety of their neighborhood – have a profound impact on their health and that, most importantly, we have the ability to change it for the better.