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Happy National Public Health Week! Making sure the shoe fits: MeHAF’s Healthy Community program, health equity, and the tools of public health

Happy National Public Health Week! Making sure the shoe fits: MeHAF’s Healthy Community program, health equity, and the tools of public health

Access to direct health care services is necessary, but not enough when it comes to improving our health. This concept is at the heart of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Commission to Build a Healthier America, and the evidence is clear: where we live, work, worship, learn, and play has a huge influence on how healthy we are and can be. 

Just prior to National Public Health Week – April 7-13, RWJF and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute released their 2014 County Health Rankings. I encourage you to take a look and see where your county ranks, and see what some of the factors are that are either helping or creating barriers for people in our communities to improving their health.

To improve public health, we have to examine the intersection of many systems and sectors within our communities to see how those systems can support better health. Housing, transportation, access to healthy food, economic and community development, education, land use, and, of course, health care are just a few of the systems that make up our communities’ health infrastructure. Trying to improve, align and connect these systems is what MeHAF’s new Healthy Community grant program is all about. The systems have developed separately over a long period of time, so the process of examining and aligning them to support communities’ efforts to nurture healthy people and healthy places will also take much effort and time.

In November, MeHAF announced awards to twenty Healthy Community grantees. At the center of their work in this first pre-planning year is community and resident engagement that will lead to the identification of a health issue that is important to each community. This means listening especially carefully to the populations that are most marginalized and carry a greater burden of disease. And what better way is there to improve a system than by listening directly to the intended beneficiaries in order to better understand what their challenges are and what would serve them best.

Social change work has historically focused on serving people equally, and not necessarily equitably. Healthy Community grantees are being encouraged to think about equity first.  At a recent gathering in Maine I heard the perfect example of the difference between equality and equity when looking at our health-supporting systems. The speaker said that our current systems are focused on making sure that everyone has a pair of shoes, whether or not the shoes fit correctly. The Healthy Community program encourages a different approach. Grantees will identify and engage all members of their communities, including those with big, wide, or tiny ‘feet,’ to make sure that the 'shoes' we fashion and deliver fit correctly.

So Happy National Public Health Week to all of us! We look forward to working with the twenty Healthy Community grantees and our partners and grantees in our other initiatives to improve the health of everyone in Maine and the communities where we live.

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