Make healthy lives for all Rhode Islanders a top priority

All Rhode Islanders deserve to be well, from head to toe.

Over the last few years, we’ve worked closely together as co-chairs of the Rhode Island Foundation-initiated long-term health planning effort. During that time, we’ve learned that one of our shared, key priorities is “healthy lives.” By that, we mean that all Rhode Islanders deserve to be well, from head to toe.

For us, well-being goes well beyond health and health care – it extends to the underlying, community-level factors that impact a person’s life. And it means that we are investing financial resources and civic leadership efforts beyond grantmaking, in what public health experts call the social determinants.

In recent years, the Rhode Island Foundation has initiated and led efforts with key health-sector leaders, state officials and community stakeholders to help improve the overall health and well-being of Rhode Islanders. The foundation has published and is tracking against indicators for the initiative Health in Rhode Island: A Long Term Vision, has provided health-focused recommendations via Make it Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future to state leaders as they determine how best to invest federal American Rescue Plan Act resources, and has offered recommendations to inform efforts by Brown University, Care New England Health System and Lifespan Corp. to establish an academic health system in a report titled “Ensuring the Integrated Academic Health System Benefits all Rhode Islanders.”

Through each of these processes, and in each set of recommendations, there are strong common themes – they all connect together to suggest and effect changes in policy, practice and resource allocation that will put Rhode Island on the map as the healthiest state in the country. The common themes that run across all three are bold and clear:

Health equity for all – ensuring all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to be in optimal health, and live, work and play in healthy communities.

Access to high-quality, affordable, and accessible care – focusing resources to maximize health outcomes for Rhode Islanders, reduce waste in the system, ensure appropriate care in the most appropriate settings, and truly support behavioral health needs across the population.

Eliminate disparities – focus (and in some cases, refocus) resources on addressing underlying inequities that influence health, and invest in the root causes of these disparities such as access to safe and affordable housing, a high-quality education and stable income sources.

Support and develop the workforce – ensure that the health sector workforce reflects the community it serves, adequately compensate, train and support health sector workers, and develop the health sector workforce of the future.

Ensure sustainability, accountability and oversight – Changing systems is challenging. With sustainable plans, clear oversight and the ability to hold stakeholders accountable, that change is possible.

Across these efforts, addressing inequities, eliminating disparities and investing in the social determinants of health stand out. Rethinking and redesigning systems with a commitment to population health and wellbeing can lead Rhode Island to achieve the goals stated in Health in Rhode Island, one of which is being the healthiest state in the country within 10 years. Those goals were endorsed by the governor in 2020 via executive order, and by the General Assembly in resolutions that same year passed by the House and Senate.

As noted by Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, outgoing director of the R.I. Department of Health, “The [COVID-19] pandemic reinforces how important it is to address the underlying community-level factors that impact health the most. Health care accounts for only a small portion of a person’s and community’s health outcomes.”

We knew this before COVID-19, we’ve seen it come to life during the pandemic, and now it is time for us all – leaders in the public and private sector, and each community member – to connect the dots, make this work a priority and ensure that our collective, and individual, well-being is a top priority.

Jane A. Hayward is the recently retired CEO and president of the Rhode Island Health Center Association and former secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Neil D. Steinberg is CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation.

This commentary piece was published in the Providence Business News on Friday, January 21, 2022.