Local View: Northland hospitals need to put prevention into practice and support nutritious foodAs pundits and politicians spout divergent opinions over the outcome of the Supreme Court health-care decision, the hidden truth is that our health-care delivery model has negative economic impacts on Americans. We all know heart-wrenching stories of families bankrupted by medical bills. Yet we must remind ourselves of the collective, economic devastation to our national economy from a disease-treatment system in the context of an overwhelming epidemic of a largely preventable burden of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
By: Dr. Nancy Sudak and Steve O'Neil, Duluth News Tribune
As pundits and politicians spout divergent opinions over the outcome of the Supreme Court health-care decision, the hidden truth is that our health-care delivery model has negative economic impacts on Americans. We all know heart-wrenching stories of families bankrupted by medical bills. Yet we must remind ourselves of the collective, economic devastation to our national economy from a disease-treatment system in the context of an overwhelming epidemic of a largely preventable burden of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
In our current revolving-door treatment model, hospitals, under harried conditions, are reimbursed for each patient they treat. Because the line of patients with chronic disease keeps getting longer, the treatment industry attempts to respond by expanding and building more hospitals. In Duluth, we see such examples on Second Street, where both our health-care systems are building new office complexes, and on Superior Street, where two competing pharmacies are being erected right across the street from one another.
On its face, this looks like a good thing for our community. More construction jobs, more health-care jobs, new buildings.
But appearances can be deceiving. Consider the state of municipal budgets today. As we pay more as a society for health care, we have less money for repairs and investments to our postal service, our libraries, our schools, universities, roads and parks. Most people get it, and health-care administrators understand. We know what fix we need: an investment in prevention instead of more investments in medical treatment. Until we actively realize how fundamental this problem is, we will continue to chase our tails.
We now see that proactively oriented school districts are working to improve school/food environments, and some cities, like Boston, have phased out the sale of sugary beverages on city property.
There are many other relevant initiatives taking place. Last year, at an event hosted by the Lake Superior Medical Society, the nationally recognized Institute for a Sustainable Future presented on similar prevention examples occurring in U.S. hospitals. We learned how leading health-care systems such as the Cleveland Clinic stopped selling sugar-sweetened beverages because they did not want to be complicit in the obesity epidemic (they continued to allow employees complete freedom to bring to work what they chose). We learned of hospitals that established CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) food-box programs at their hospitals because the evidence showed direct economic benefit to area producers and health benefits to consumers.
The same type of program adopted by Minnesota Power was reported recently in the News Tribune. We were provided with examples of creative health-care marketing teams that joined forces with local organizations working on food literacy and cooking skills to shared organizational benefits. We also learned that many hospitals are purchasing 30 percent more local, healthy food because their CEOs recognize investments in the local food economy mean investments in the socioeconomic health of their communities and, by extension, the health of
Two April 4 News Tribune articles — “Report shows link between health and wealth, St. Louis County officials say,” and, “Sandstone, Essentia fight over hospital’s future” — offered a reminder of these powerful health-care examples. One story explained the link between individual health and socioeconomic health in St. Louis County; the other concerned a fight in Sandstone with Essentia Health over if or by whom a new hospital would be built. These stories were clearly linked.
What if Essentia and all Northland hospitals applied the lessons of other health-care examples across the country? What if our regional hospitals made similar, long-term, measurable, public commitments to source healthy, local food?
It wouldn’t solve all our health-care problems, but it would be an important contribution to improve our local economy and create inspirational healthy food environment models that others could follow. These initiatives are not costly to implement and would create symbiotic benefits for health care and community; hopefully, we can find the same leadership from regional health care that helped change tobacco environments decades ago. In time, we might just start to reverse the need for more hospitals.
Dr. Nancy Sudak is a community physician in Duluth. Steve O’Neil of Duluth is an elected St. Louis County commissioner, chairman of the county’s Health and Human Service Committee, involved with the State Health Improvement Plan and is on the Community Health Board.