The Health Section

Zip code vs. genetic code: Where we start to address health care disparities

When I was growing up, my father taught my siblings and me a powerful lesson about the onus of responsibility. One of my chores was to maintain our lawn. He told me that I could choose to ignore the growing grass and put off my work, or I could face it head on – it didn’t matter to him. The only difference is that the longer you let it grow, the harder it will be to fix once you finally decide to tackle it.

The issue of health equity is no different. At the Aetna Foundation, we are tackling this issue community by community, with programs that empower underserved populations to take charge of their health outcomes.

In the United States today, a person’s ability to live is so dramatically affected by where they live that it’s startling. Today, your subway stop or neighborhood block can mean all the difference between living like it’s 2015 or 1915. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your zip code is a greater indicator of your health than your genetic code.

We know that people living in underserved communities are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases. Heart disease and diabetes are two of the top 10 causes of death among African-Americans, and Latinos face a 66 percent higher rate of diabetes than their white counterparts. Health equity isn’t going to happen while we’re living in different worlds in America today.  While the statistics may seem overwhelming, we can all contribute to closing the health divide – non-profits, corporations, and communities all have a role to play. Working community by community, we can curb these trends.

My colleagues MaryLynn Ostrowski and Alyse Sabina and I recently wrote more about the “zip code paradigm” on the Health Affairs Blog, and you can find more examples of our work in a recent article in the Huffington Post. And at the Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight Health, I spoke on a panel with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary, about tangible ways to combat health disparities.

At the Foundation, we look at all of our initiatives through the lens of health equity and how we can enhance the health of underserved communities, through a three step approach:

1) We’re broadening the conversation from health disparities to health equity to show that everyone has a role to play. We’re working with partners across many fields and sectors to cultivate community-specific solutions to improve health outcomes.

2) We’re providing the necessary tools to empower communities to create their own sustainable changes. We know from a Pew report that 84 percent of low-income adults have access to a mobile phone and that one in three mobile phone owners has used the phone to look up health information.

3) We’re showing the economic benefit of bridging the health divide. Health disparities cost the U.S. over $309 billion per year. If we can build health equity, we can lower these costs while also saving up to 84,000 lives per year.

We’re already making a difference in several communities around the country. In Philadelphia, we’re partnering with GirlTrek, an organization that engages African-American women and girls in walking campaigns based on topics ranging from faith to African-American history. In Cleveland, we’re working with the Fair Food Network on an app that will increase healthy food access for underserved communities while also creating new markets and sustainable sales opportunities for urban farmers.

We all have a responsibility to bridge the health divide and build health equity.

Watch the panel discission on reducing health disparities at the Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight Health:

Also, hear Garth Graham discuss health equity as part of the event’s closing session: