Turning the Clock Forward on Health Disparities, City Block by City Block

While the size of the problem may seem overwhelming, we can all play a role in closing the health divide.
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In America today, a person's ability to lead a long, healthy life is so impacted by where they live that it's startling. You don't need to travel to a developing country to see communities that have been left in the last century. Stand in the lobbies of some of our largest and most celebrated hospitals and look outside, and you will see urban communities burdened by staggering mortality rates. If you ride a few subway stops or walk a few neighborhood blocks, you travel even further back in time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), where you live has a greater impact on your life expectancy and overall health than your genetic code. For example, if you look at the neighborhoods of Boston, you will see that its Roxbury neighborhood has the lowest life expectancy -- 58.9 years, according to U.S. census data. That life expectancy is shorter than in many third-world countries and is similar to how long the average American lived in the early 1920s. In New Orleans, the divide is so pronounced that a person's life expectancy can vary as much as 25 years between neighborhoods just a few miles apart.

These types of disparities cost the United States up to $309 billion annually and, if eliminated, would prevent up to 80,000 early deaths each year. Chronic diseases -- including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and heart disease -- disproportionately affect underserved communities.

Geography has such an extensive effect on health because it determines access to care, information, services and healthy foods. We must tackle them community by community, reaching people where they spend time -- in their homes, schools, neighborhoods and faith-based communities.

The good news is that we have the power to help move the clock forward for these communities. That starts by working city block by city block to arm people with the necessary tools and information to empower them to take control of their own health.

As a cardiologist, I have been encouraged by the promise of technology as an equalizer in health disparities. According to Pew Research Center, 62 percent of smartphone users have used their device to look up information about a health condition. It can be as simple as a young girl I met in Baltimore who used her smartphone to look up her grandmother's heart condition and download an app to help them track their daily walks. The next time I saw them, they both had a wealth of information that they used to improve the grandmother's quality of life.

Through my work as president of the Aetna Foundation, I've also seen scalable hyperlocal solutions. In Cleveland, a two-way faith-based texting campaign managed by local health ministers helped African American women receive life-changing exercise, wellness, disease prevention and lifestyle-change messaging targeted to their community. We're also working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved on the "Innovating for the Underserved" Challenge to crowdsource scalable ideas from the broader technology community.

While the size of the problem may seem overwhelming, we can all play a role in closing the health divide. Nonprofits, corporations, communities and individuals can all make a difference. At the Aetna Foundation, we're working hand in hand with partners on the local and national levels to provide the resources and support that can bridge the gap and improve quality of life for our most vulnerable communities. Working community by community and city block by city block, we can turn the clock forward on health disparities.

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