Opinion

We can make North Carolina healthier — but there's no time to waste

Pedestrians cross Western Boulevard at Avent Ferry Road near N.C. State University's campus in 2014. Policies that encourage walking and support mass transit can make communities healthier.
Pedestrians cross Western Boulevard at Avent Ferry Road near N.C. State University's campus in 2014. Policies that encourage walking and support mass transit can make communities healthier.

There are many factors that impact your well-being, and none matter more than where you live, learn, work and play, otherwise known as social determinants of health. In North Carolina, while the life expectancy of our citizens is above the national average in some counties, there are significant gaps overall in the quality of life across the state. Many of us know and experience these disparities every day, but new data stemming from a multi-year collaboration between US News and World Report and Aetna Foundation – the Healthiest Communities Rankings – confirm they exist.

Several factors contribute to why there are only five of 100 North Carolina counties ranked among the top 500; key among them is opioid addiction. North Carolina sees an average of nearly four deaths a day from opioid overdoses. Stepping back, it is no surprise that when looking at the scores across all 100 counties in North Carolina, the average was only 43 out of 100 in population health, the heaviest weighted category of the rankings, which measures access to care, mental health, health outcomes and healthy behavior. There is a direct connection between drug addiction and mental health, with several studies noting that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.

There is no time to waste. Cross-sector collaboration informed by the most recent ranking data can focus our efforts. The state is already increasing community awareness and focusing education programs on prevention, as well as actively working to reduce the oversupply of prescriptions. Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have both demonstrated their commitment to eradicating the opioid epidemic. At Aetna, we’re committed to helping to reverse the trend of opioid abuse across the nation. We have a strategy in place to reduce inappropriate opioid prescribing, increase non-opioid pain treatment options and promote evidence-based recovery for our members with addiction. Working at the local level to tackle opioid addiction is the most effective way we can help North Carolinians improve their own health.

There are other factors at play as well. North Carolina communities with a low score in infrastructure, for example, can use the rankings to champion investments in public transportation that make it easier for people to get to grocery stores, parks and more where they can abide by their healthy lifestyle choices, as well as make it easier for them to obtain health care support or services to improve their health or stay healthy.

Even smaller initiatives, such as one in West Charlotte where the Council of Governments are conducting transportation audits, are helping to help improve pedestrian walkability and keep community members and local officials talking about street safety. Programs focused on improving food security like Asheville’s Bountiful Cities program has helped to increase fresh food consumption in urban and rural areas where there are food deserts. And access to affordable housing provides stability that is critically important to one’s health.

Knowing what impacts our well-being is the first step toward improving it. Investing in programs locally and using metrics to measure impact can help guide decisions for policy makers, community partners and citizens that put health at the forefront. Comprehensive, comparative data like that contained in the Healthiest Communities ranking can direct local resources and programming in a way that begins to close the well-being gaps in North Carolina and nationwide.

Jim Bostian is North Carolina market president for Aetna.
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