National Public Health Week: Healthiest Nation 2030
There are scores of rankings of the world's healthiest countries, and the list varies from one to the next, depending on the data and the goals of the studies. Some countries, such as Switzerland and Singapore, appear frequently in the top 10. One of those almost never among them is the USA.
The theme of National Public Health Week 2015 is "Healthiest Nation 2030" - to place America among the world's health leaders in the span of a generation.
As a result, much of the onus this year falls on the agencies who formulate health policies. Here at the shore, operatives in the Ocean County Health Department (OCHD) are poring over their own facts and figures and strengthening synergies with related agencies in the public and private sector - and ultimately, bonding with you, to help achieve the goal.
Raising the grade by crunching the numbers
Health officials are looking internally to learn where the weaknesses are in their own systems. County Health Coordinator Dan Regenye believes that everyone entrusted with health care and maintenance should be doing the same.
"We're trying to present a challenge to these organizations, challenges to residents, to look within themselves and say 'what are the needs within the community, within the family?,'" Regenye said.
If it's done effectively, a map emerges that shows wellness needs changing from region to region, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood, Regenye said. The challenge then becomes one of shaping programs to fit them.
It's a fluid process as populations and development shift. Ocean County contains the highest concentration of men and women over age 75 and over age 85 in New Jersey, and more than half its land mass is preserved from development. But time, economics, climate and leadership changes offer no guarantees that the same conditions will always prevail.
One successful one-size-fits-all program that OCHD has developed is Live Healthy Ocean County. Spokesperson Leslie Terjesen described the scope. "We do blood pressure screening, we do our mobile stroke risk assessment screening, we do osteoporosis screening, and we do a medication management program."
They can't force such programs on any community, but will bring it wherever it's requested, Terjesen said.
Starting from ZIP
Your ZIP code tells researchers volumes about your education, environment, job opportunities, income level, and especially your health prospects.
OCHD staffers have found a preponderance of uninsured people, especially young moms on their own, based on registration figures in the federally-supported Women's Infants and Children's (WIC) nutrition program.
Knowing also that many do not have the means to travel at their convenience to the Health Department on Sunset Avenue in Toms River, or the Southern Ocean County Service Center in Manahawkin, OCHD conducts outreach on the road.
"We go to clinics where people receive their prenatal care. We go to many satellite sites throughout Ocean County," Terjesen said. "If people have no insurance or no medical care for their children, we refer them to one of the federally qualified health centers in Ocean County, of which we have four," Terjesen said.
If there is a positive outgrowth of Superstorm Sandy, it's the walls that were dissolved between disparate agencies tasked with public welfare. Police, schools, public works, code enforcement, sanitation, faith-based groups and health workers began unprecedented collaborations.
OCHD expects to strengthen the new bonds in ensuing years, knowing that it will be needed whenever the next disaster strikes. Health leaders also point out that you are an important component among the collaborators. How you perceive health care determines how you manage your own well-being. There is an overt movement afoot to change attitudes from recovery-and-repair to management-and-maintenance.
"We don't want people using emergency rooms as their ambulatory care or their doctor visit," Terjesen said. "We want people to have a medical home."
She credits Obamacare with taking the stress off hospitals by allowing smaller medical practices to grow, empowered by a larger number of people no longer worried about paying every cent for health care. Initiatives such as Safe Streets aim to reduce risks to which we're exposed daily.
Signs of behavior shifts abound in the private sector as well. Healthy fast-food choices, nutritional information on menus and packages, and easy access to fresh foods speak volumes.Health clubs conduct brisk businesses. Nationally, entire months are devoted to specific health issues such as cardiac care, autism and breast cancer. Afflictions such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression are in sharp focus. Five-K fundraisers abound. The Polar Bear Plunge sends thousands of swimmers into the ocean on some of the coldest days of the year for Special Olympics. Technology brings medical information to your PC and your phone in an instant. There are countless more examples that all add to the momentum needed for a goal this loftty.
Building Broader Connections
Grassroots groups see needs and find ways to fill them without the bureaucratic burden. Regenye views them as valuable allies in any effort toward improved health management. The stronger the alliances, the more effective the solutions.
"One of the strongest ones we're trying to build over time is with faith-based initiatives and houses of worship around the county," Regenye said. All denominations count in his scenario, and each brings unique perspectives and contributions.
Each specialized group also exists as a microcosm with its own health awareness and issues. Through Regenye. OCHD responds to them. "We have many, many services and programs. If somebody would like to invite us in, we can certainly develop a program for them," Regenye said.
Equally valuable are the county's 18 municipal alliances, each of which offers an inside look at each community's behavioral challenges through the prism of substance abuse prevention.
"There may be an underage drinking problem in one community, there may be a prescription drug abuse problem in another," Terjesen said. "We have the opportunity to work with them."
Building on success
The climb to wellness in the past several decades has twisted and turned, gone uphill and downhill, and had more than its share of snares and obstacles. The ability to change perceptions of the roles of healthcare providers and subscribers is fundamental to turning America into the world's healthiest nation by 2030.
"The key piece is prevention," Regenye said. "A lot of the major issues we're dealing with are very much preventable. People play an active role in their own best interests."
So, what do you do? "First you want to start with activity and healthy eating," Regenye said. "Early detection of certain disease and getting the screening you need at certain ages."
And, as Regenye notes, the signs of change are out in the open. "You see more people walking, jogging, and on their bicycles. Kids are very active in youth sports. It gives a very positive image for the future."
So when you see those kids defying gravity on skateboards or snowboards, or throwing everything they've got into a gridiron pass play or a basketball three-pointer, or trying to stretch a double into a triple, remember - enlightened lawmakers turned helmets and pads into necessities, not luxuries, so their risks are smaller. They will eat junk by the pound, and their metabolism will process it the way only a young body's can, and they can't avoid healthy choices on the school menu. Whether you agree with vaccinations or not, they are available and, with certain exceptions, mandatory for public school attendance in New Jersey. All this and more, designed to turn the next generation into the world's healthiest.
You can be part of it, too. No time like the present to get started!