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From awareness to action: Resolving America’s health disparities

We, as a society, can’t just dabble on the edges of reform when our basic assumptions continue to perpetuate health disparities. We must do more.

Devices used to take blood pressure, temperature, and examine eyes and ears rest on a wall inside of a doctor's office
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

We live in a nation where health disparities are so severe that your zip code can predict your lifespan.

But poor health outcomes are often the result of more than just the neighborhood you live in; social isolation, loneliness, even a loss of faith and hope can all impact a person’s well-being.

It’s crucial for people working in the health care field to listen and respond to the concerns and priorities of patients and address the many factors that contribute to a person’s overall well-being. This means health care professionals need to treat the whole person.

Whole person health care is an approach to care that considers physical, mental, social and spiritual health when we work to improve health outcomes. This approach will make health care more equitable.

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Currently, our health care system is not living up to our aspirations when it comes to whole person care. For example, our system frequently discharges sick people from hospital care back into homelessness. Payment systems don’t reward prevention and early intervention for health improvement. There are drastic disparities between who receives quality treatment and preventative care; economically fragile families often lack access to affordable health care.

To improve, we must strip down the system to its roots to correct design flaws that don’t support whole person health. We need to fundamentally transform how people interact with the health care system and in their communities. After all, health is wealth. Without a healthy society, the economy suffers. We saw that during the pandemic.

At the inaugural Whole Person Health Summit convening April 19 at the University of St. Thomas, an inspiring group of practitioners, providers, thought leaders, advocates and organizers dedicated to advancing health equity through whole person care are coming together to share best practices for implementing change to the current system.

Whole person care is effective when implemented. Integrated behavioral health models such as Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, in which people receive coordinated care for behavioral and substance use issues so that they don’t get lost in the system, are promising models. Through these models we have seen that good health outcomes are made possible by the inter-professional team working alongside the funding streams to enable the incorporation of social, spiritual and cultural activities along with physical and mental health.

To effect long-term change, we must move from awareness to action. We must look beyond the current care providers to tomorrow’s providers. At the Morrison Family College of Health, our near-term goal is to be unwavering in our inclusivity and ambitious in our creativity so that we are intently focused on improving health for individuals, families and communities based on the lessons we impart on our students.

For example, our pre-licensure nursing programs (both the BSN and the MSN) require clinical placements at public health and community organizations such as the St. Paul Public Library, the Salvation Army and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. Learning opportunities in the future will include more community partners and health entities.

MayKao Hang
MayKao Hang
Through these placements and what they experience through their coursework, our nursing students learn that wellness and good health include more than the physical treatment of a disease or illness. Re-engineering health care means centering the whole person within their social system and reimagining a system designed around families and community-engaged solutions.

We, as a society, can’t just dabble on the edges of reform when our basic assumptions continue to perpetuate health disparities. We must do more. We must implore social ingenuity and innovation through inter-professional collaboration and partnerships with the community. We must address whole person care – mind, body, spirit and community – in our schools and across our systems.

Dr. MayKao Hang is vice president and the founding dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at the University of St. Thomas and former CEO of the Wilder Foundation.