Our health is affected by more than what happens in the doctor’s office. The factors that can make or break our health include the many societal conditions we face on a daily basis—determinants such as access to fresh foods, neighborhood walkability, and public safety. When our communities are built and governed with health in mind, we all inherit an opportunity to live longer, healthier lives. For us, healthy communities are economically competitive, inclusive, and equitable.
Fortunately, most Americans want a healthier future, too: According to a recent survey fielded by the Aetna Foundation, 94 percent of Americans say that they are willing to take action to make their communities healthier.
The survey results show that Americans believe they have an average of five healthy days per week, and more than 77 percent of respondents describe their health as good. This is encouraging news. However, global health data find that when we compare ourselves with our peers in other high-income nations, America comes up short. Despite spending more on health care than any other country in the world does, Americans live shorter, less healthy lives than our counterparts in other rich nations. We can and must do better.
But, first, we need to elevate a national dialogue about what it means to be healthy—not just to be free of disease. For example, according to the World Health Organization, health is much more than the absence of disease; health is also the presence of complete mental, physical, and social well-being. Transforming the way we think about and perceive good health is no easy task, but it’s a critical ingredient for creating healthier communities and, eventually, a healthier nation.
We all have a role to play in improving health and wellness in our communities, and we know no single entity can make sufficient changes alone. And as our colleagues on the frontlines of medicine and public health know, those working outside of both sectors can be valuable partners in addressing the social determinants that shape our health and well-being.
If we can break down silos and galvanize the brightest minds across all sectors that influence our health, we can make an enormous difference in health outcomes across the country. Leaders in education, transportation, housing, and private business can combine their expertise to help ignite the change we need to make a sustainable impact in the communities facing the greatest disparities in the ability to live long, healthy lives.
That’s why the Aetna Foundation, American Public Health Association, and National Association of Counties, in partnership with CEOs for Cities, have launched the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. By working with small to mid-size cities, counties, and federally recognized tribes across the country, the Challenge will help build measurable improvements over time on key wellness metrics such as healthy behaviors; community safety; social and economic factors like access to high-quality jobs; environmental exposures like pollution; and the built environment, in which people can live, work, and play. As of today, several “Innovator Cities” have already signed on from communities across the country to be a part of the Challenge, with projects ranging from curbing secondhand smoke, to reducing violence, to increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
One of the more telling results from the survey (mentioned above) was that nearly all Americans (94 percent) are willing to do something to have a healthier place to live. The responses ranged from growing fruits and vegetables in a garden, to taking public transportation, to even paying more in taxes.
The willingness to take part in bettering the health of where we live is apparent through the six Innovator Cities in the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge. These Innovator Cities have already shown great progress in their efforts to impact the health disparities facing their communities but are looking to the Challenge as a way to bring together new partners or gain greater awareness of the top health issues they face.
The city of Cleveland recently passed the Tobacco 21 law banning sales of tobacco products within the city proper to anyone under the age of twenty-one. The city is participating in the Challenge to develop a program to elevate the discussion they are having locally about tobacco control.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, more than 80,000 residents live in areas considered “food deserts.” While there have been many local nonprofits and faith-based organizations that have helped to address the issue, the Tulsa Department of Health is working to bring together all of the resources addressing food access to create one comprehensive program.
The Challenge is part of our three organizations’ overall commitment to building healthy communities. We’ll be awarding more than $1.5 million in prizes to participating cities, counties, and tribes that develop innovative models for health and wellness that can be tailored to other localities and replicated nationwide. We’re not seeking to simply rank communities for the work they’re already doing; our goal is actually to motivate cities, counties, and tribes to dive deeper into their communities to jumpstart sustainable changes toward better health for all.
Our goal is to inspire innovative, cross-sector, and community-driven solutions that can be used community by community, city by city, county by county, and tribe by tribe to address unique challenges where we live, work, and play.
Learn more about how your city, county, or federally recognized tribe can get involved by visiting www.HealthiestCities.org.