Opinion: Better community health leads to better individual health

Terri Kline

Not every health care problem can be addressed with a prescription pad. In fact, we know that a person’s health is more often influenced by the health of – and how they interact with – their community.

Is it a city or small town? Are there healthy foods available? Are there trails or parks where people can walk and play? It all has an enormous impact on individual health.

These population factors, sometimes referred to as the social determinants or social influencers of health, are defined by the conditions and environment in which people live.

For example, a recent study by WalletHub found that Detroit is the most stressed out city in the United States. Many people might not think about the link between stress and health, but research shows that long-term stress seriously affects a person’s long-term well-being. Solving such health concerns can’t be done alone. Health insurers must keep working hand-in-hand with hospitals, doctors, community leaders and employers to build healthier communities.

By applying what we know about social determinants of health, we can not only improve individual and community health, but also advance health equity in Michigan.

Insurers are uniquely suited to improve the health of a community. For example, the health of elderly patients might suffer because they lack access to transportation. This leads to missed doctor’s appointments and an inability to get to therapy or the pharmacy for prescriptions. Health insurers, by ensuring that patients have affordable access to telehealth solutions, are able to reduce the extent to which geography serves as a barrier to care.

Medicare Advantage is also taking steps to address patients’ needs that are non-medical but nonetheless impact their overall health and well-being. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced in May that it will soon allow Medicare Advantage to provide supplemental benefits that are not medical but improve the health of their patients – benefits like air conditioners for those with asthma and rides to the doctor’s office.

But insurers’ abilities to improve social determinants of health are not limited to providing access to doctors and medical services. Our commitment is to total community health.

For example, our company, Health Alliance Plan, offers patients here in Michigan the ability to identify health risks alongside a tailored action plan to help them stay on track to achieve their unique health goals. Our Wellness At Your Side mobile app assists patients with everything from exercising and losing weight to eating better, reducing stress and quitting smoking.

Chrisina Carroll leads a demonstration of The Bar Method, an exercise method, at Beacon Park. The Bar Method will soon be opening a location in downtown Detroit.

We’re also encouraging our community here in Michigan to join together to make healthy choices.

When people are happier and healthier, we all pay less for health care.

Investing in safe, affordable housing, parks and green space for exercise and fun, providing healthy food choices in every city, public schools that work for our kids and communities, integrating public and private programs that serve at-risk patients – these are the kinds of community health improvements that deliver better health for everyone.

Terri Kline is president and CEO of Health Alliance Plan.