Pensacola, Florida
Friday October 31st 2014

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Tackling Community Health

Partnership Strives to Improve Area Ills
By Jeremy Morrison

Florida is not a particularly healthy state. It ranks in the bottom third nationally in key indexes of health and wellbeing.

Within the state of Florida, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have the distinction of being the least healthy.

“So, yeah, we’re down there,” said David Sjoberg, vice president for Strategic Services at Baptist Health Care.

Sjoberg is also currently serving as the president of the Partnership for a Healthy Community, which is comprised of various regional health care officials and entities. In December, the organization released a health assessment that painted a bleak picture.

The assessment revealed what similar three studies before it had revealed since the mid-90s. We have a lot of issues with diabetes and asthma, there’s a big problem with sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer, death rates are high for Alzheimer’s Disease and on and on.

Regional health officials are currently working to better the area’s diagnosis. To that end, the Community Health Summit was held earlier this month at the Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand Hotel.

“If we want to grow as a community,” Sjoberg said, “getting healthy is a part of that.”

View from the Summit

The Community Health Summit provided an opportunity for leaders from the areas of health care, business, government, education and religious-affiliated groups to focus on improving area health. The event was hosted by the Partnership, and speakers included Dr. Roderick King of the Florida Public Health Institute, and University of West Florida economist Rick Harper.

“I don’t think we could have been more pleased with how it went,” Sjoberg said.

One of the focuses of the summit concerned the economics of poor community health.

“I think it’s clear that subpar health conditions impacts the cost of doing business,” explained Harper later.

At the summit, the UWF economist talked about how poor health measures go hand in hand with loss of workforce productivity and absenteeism, an over-utilization of expensive emergency room treatment options, higher insurance rates for the area overall, personal financial burdens and a diversion of health system resources.

Harper views the area’s health and economic ills as two sides of the same coin.

“Communities that face economic challenges tend to face health care-related challenges,” he said. “You have to look at it as pieces of the same puzzle, as threads of the same fabric.”

The economist points to nagging health issues and unhealthy habits—such as diabetes and tobacco smoking—and how they tend to impact lower income segments of the community at a greater rate. He notes that education and access to preventative medical care also play a role in the community’s health.

“I think the long term solution for a healthy community,” he explained, “you need to be healthy in all dimensions.”

Another factor in the area’s health appears to be the community’s attitude and behavior. Think smoking, fried food, obesity, and a lack of exercise.

“We just don’t have good behavior. We don’t tend to focus on living healthy,” Sjoberg said, noting that Mobile, Ala. has garnered similar health results. “Is it maybe a regional, cultural thing with behavior? It may be.”

This portion of the equation is ripe for improvement.

“These are the things we can control,” said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Escambia County Health Department and also a Partnership board member.

Lanza referenced a pie chart presented at the Summit. It illustrated the varying factors contributing to an individual’s health. While human biology and genetics play a part, perhaps more important are front-end factors:  stress, nutrition, exercise, alcohol and drug use, as well as environment.

It is the front-end factors that are within a person’s ability to address. Lanza feels the health care community should put more effort into helping individual’s address these aspects.

“Health care is more than treating someone that is sick,” he said. “Health care is preventing someone from getting sick.”

And then, of course, there’s the simple dollar-and-cents math. This area of Florida is rife with economic disparity. Many people do not have health insurance, or the wherewithal to seek appropriate medical care.

“We don’t publicly invest a lot in healthcare up here,” Sjoberg said.

That end of the equation is not set to improve. Florida lawmakers appear intent on rejecting the new federal Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and the funds that accompany it.

“I don’t think that will have a good impact at all,” the Partnership president said. “They’re just leaving a whole lot of federal money on the table, which would have helped people get health care services.”

The Health Plan

This month’s Community Health Summit is the beginning, not the finale.

“There’s going to be more to come,” assured Sjoberg.

The Partnership, along with its community partners, is intent on tackling the area’s health care inadequacies. They are using the disheartening results from last year’s community assessment as a catalyst and inspiration.

“We just have to make up our mind collectively that we don’t like being last in the state,” Sjoberg said.

At the Summit, the field of issues was narrowed down, with stakeholders selecting three areas to focus on.

“We’ve got to tackle obesity, we’ve got to tackle tobacco use,” explained Sjoberg.

The third aspect the stakeholders selected was health care management, or what Sjoberg describes as having people seek “the right care at the right place at the right time.”

“As opposed to going to the emergency room,” he said. “We have to do a better job of directing traffic.”

As a follow-up to the Summit, stakeholders are forming community work groups to concentrate on each of these three fields of priorities. The group working on obesity will focus on access to proper nutrition and improving opportunities for physical activity. The group charged with tackling tobacco use will work with area employers, with the goals of curbing smoking in the workplace and also providing improved access to programs that aid in smoking cessation. The health-management group will be determining how best to ensure that residents receive the appropriate care (at the right place, at the right time), and also how to help individuals become more proficient at managing their own health problems.

Finally, the Partnership is encouraging businesses and organizations to participate in a community health improvement compact. Thus far, about 30 organizations have signed up.

As part of the pact, participants commit to engage in initiatives to improve the health status and quality of life of residents of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. For more information on participating in the compact, visit the Partnership for a Healthy Community’s website, at pfahc.org.