As many of my colleagues know, health care is one of my passions, both as a direct service provider in my time as a volunteer EMT, and in making state and local policy. Much of my work has focused on ensuring that people can get the care they need when they need it – whether by providing that care myself in an ambulance or ensuring that our regional hospital is equipped to provide it. This work is vital for any community, but it’s not the last word in keeping a community healthy. In fact, many public health experts attribute only a small portion of health outcomes to the medical care people receive. A much larger share of overall health is due to factors that most people may not immediately associate with health care – the social determinants of health that shape our physical environments, mold our formative childhood experiences, and undergird our choices about nutrition, physical activity, and education.
In some ways, taking such a broad view of community health can be overwhelming: if nearly every aspect of life influences health, where do we begin to improve health outcomes in our counties, especially when there are such stark disparities in length and quality of life between – and within – localities? The good news, from my perspective, is that while some broad social factors, such as global economic trends, are out of localities’ control, many aspects of community health can be shaped at the local level to give residents of our counties the best possible chance to thrive.
Virginia counties are rising to this challenge. In highlighting case studies of successful programs each month, I was continually encouraged to see the ingenuity and energy counties are deploying in the service of improving health outcomes. A common thread among many successful projects was the cultivation of partnerships among community leaders, whether by bringing private-sector sponsorships to a program, or working hand-in-hand with institutions of higher education, community foundations, or other government entities.
Pittsylvania County’s multi-year effort to build the first public parks in the history of the County, which won the top overall VACo Achievement Award this year, is one great example. Pittsylvania County set out to improve its performance in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings by increasing residents’ access to safe places to exercise, and after four years, funding contributions from partners such as two regional hospitals and two electric cooperatives, and a lot of sweat equity, Pittsylvania County now has four beautiful parks that have been embraced by the community. We will be recognizing Pittsylvania County at the annual conference, and Parks and Recreation Director Mark Moore will be speaking at a breakout session with other Achievement Award winners.
I hope some of the case studies in this series of columns have helped to spread some ideas worth borrowing. All of the columns, as well as some helpful links, are available on the Healthy Virginia Counties page at http://www.vaco.org/newsroom/healthy-virginia-counties/, and I hope that page can serve as a resource for you. Although my term as President is concluding, I intend to stay involved in these issues and I hope you will too. Let’s keep this conversation going!