Collaboration to create healthier communities in Minnesota


Health-wise, many other countries look better than the United States. The French, the Germans, the Swedes, the Israelis, for example – they all live longer than we do in the U.S. Our nation currently fixates on Obamacare, with narrow-minded public officials and pundits of all persuasions asserting their positions on how to finance health care, arguing over whom to blame for system problems, and debating alternatives.

“Narrow-minded” – I use that term not pejoratively, but rather to raise awareness about the limited scope of the health care debate and to focus attention on the fact that the formal system of health care influences our health to a much lesser extent than other things influence our health – for example, our environment and our lifestyles. The formal health system, despite its 21st century technology which can save the lives of people with injuries and conditions fatal in years past, nonetheless does not influence the length of our lives as significantly as do our income, education, and nutrition.

Cynthia Boyd, a reporter with MinnPost, wrote recently that good and affordable housing might be considered a “lifesaving vaccine.” She used medical terminology to drive home the importance of social, economic, and environmental factors in determining our health.

That’s why Wilder Research teamed up with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to promote collaboration in Minnesota between public health practitioners and community development finance professionals. Despite similar missions, these two groups have worked to promote our quality of life using different lenses and independent approaches. Public health has focused primarily on increasing awareness of healthy behaviors (eating nutritious food, exercising, not smoking, etc.), on policies which protect the public from harm (food handling laws, fluoridated water, smoking bans, etc.), and on increasing access to health services. Community development finance professionals have focused on designing living environments best suited to good health and on financing major projects which can offer access to health care, child care, housing, and better food, for example.

So, in 2012, we convened people from throughout Minnesota who share the mission to promote community health. We sought to raise awareness about the social determinants of health, develop a common understanding of how to make progress, and spark additional action.

In 2013, we invited people back – this time emphasizing action. Nineteen projects from around the state shared their experiences with cross-sector collaboration, involving nonprofit organizations, government, private businesses, and academia. These projects showed how they have educated the public, promoted exercise and nutrition, connected people with health care, and improved access to healthy food. National speakers offered insight into how we can do our work better; they also noted that Minnesota has made more progress than many other states. You can see posters from the projects, as well a pick up other information from the conference here.

Elaine Arkin, manager of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, delivered a keynote speech at the conference. She described the process of building recommendations for the promotion of healthy communities. Those recommendations will come forward during a webinar on Monday, the 13th of January, 2014. She also drew attention to the use of a national report prepared by Wilder Research and the Minneapolis Fed. The report documents the extent of collaboration around the country and identifies challenges and opportunities for further progress to improve health through collaboration between public health and community development finance organizations.

We took great satisfaction in doing the national research and preparing that report for the Commission to Build a Healthier America. We feel part of a movement, inspired by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and grounded in sound research, which can enable all people in our nation, poor or rich, to live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives.