Of all the things in the fields of both public health and healthcare that pique my interest and attention most, it’s health disparities, specifically the numbers 5 and 7. In a country as productive and innovative as ours, it’s a particularly vexing reality check whenever I’m faced with those two numbers, which I’ve listed below along with their respective contexts.
5 – the difference, in years, of life expectancy between genders
*Life Expectancy at Birth in 2013: Female 81.2 years Male 76.4 years
**Races considered: Hispanic, White, Black
5 & 7- the difference, in years, of life expectancy between females & males respectively
*Longest life expectancy to shortest in each gender
Health disparities are the end products of a variety of complex factors including, but not limited to the social determinants of health: SES, transportation, access to healthcare, employment, etc. Additionally, they are also impacted by biological (our genes and family history), social (our culture and networks) and environmental (our physical surroundings) factors. Lastly, health disparities are impacted by individual health behaviors and lifestyles.
The numbers 5 and 7, to me, represent a collective challenge: how can we bring these numbers down, thereby reducing health disparities in our country? What other perspectives do we need outside the fields of public health and healthcare to reduce health disparities?
My conversation with Steve Petty, Corporate Director for Community Health Improvement at INTEGRIS Health could offer some insight to the issues I’ve raised above.
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing?
Steve Petty: I have been working in health care for 29 years. I started in a marketing/public relations role and several other areas and have worked in community and employee wellness for the last 20 years.
In community wellness, our mission (the same as INTEGRIS Health) is to improve the health of the people and communities we serve. Our department works in many at-risk, minority and under-served communities. The state of Oklahoma has very poor health indicators for about everything you can possibly imagine. We are working to provide health, wellness and health education services to those most in need, but to also educate people in general about the need to take care of themselves – know their health numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.), to get routine and regular exams, among others.
One area that continued to grab my attention was comparatively poor health indicators for men. It was alarming to discover that such few men actually went to a regular doctor or health provider, let alone had access to any type of screenings. INTEGRIS had been doing a Women’s Health Forum for many years then. Most of their outreach efforts were for women who had insurance (employer-based or from retirement) but a majority of them were proactive with their health for the most part.
Two of my colleagues and I developed a proposal that would address men’s health in a different way that wasn’t intimidating to men, but still covered all aspects of their health and education. Our leadership liked the idea, but a few seemed skeptical that we would be able to attract men to a health event. We were confident that we could succeed if we tied it to something they were interested in, so, naturally, we partnered with the local sports radio station and used humor to make it a different kind of health event.
In our first event in 2004, over 300 men attended our event and we’ve had steady attendance ever since. We continue to add more events and health screenings which have proven successful and have replicated many of these screenings and events in our rural communities where we have smaller hospitals and populations with limited access to health education programs and services.
We started planning our event back in 2003 and realized there wasn’t a lot of information on men’s health events anywhere. Through internet searches, I stumbled upon the Men’s Health Network (MHN) webpage. We finally found a resource to help us secure health education literature for our upcoming men’s health conference and MHN’s Jim Boyd and Scott Williams were crucial partners in planning that event and others since. MHN has been one of our biggest supporters and partners in our efforts to improve the health of men and boys in Oklahoma. The partnership has given me the opportunity to present our program and services across the country and at the 2009 International Society on Men’s Health in Vienna, Austria. I’ve served on several committees through recommendations by MHN, and that’s how I got involved with the American Public Health Association (APHA) Men’s Health Caucus (MHC). I was fortunate enough to be involved with the caucus early and have served in several positions since its inception in 2008. I currently serve as the chair for the MHC and represent our group in the APHA’s Caucus Collaborative.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
SP: I’m inspired by all the work being done which focuses on the health of men and boys. It’s amazing to see how awareness and interest to keep men healthy has escalated over the years among government officials, businesses, marketing professionals and the public as a whole. I’m also inspired by all of the great programs and services we’ve implemented here in Oklahoma, not just for men, but to improve health outcomes for the entire population, including children, senior citizens and minority populations. We have a long way to go to show impact, but we are slowly making progress throughout the state.
Me: Can you share some of the progress you’ve made at INTEGRIS as it relates to men’s health outreach?
SP: A large percentage of men have only limited contact with physicians and the health care system as a whole. Men not only fail to get routine check-ups or preventive care, but often ignore symptoms or delay seeking medical attention when sick or in pain. These poor health habits take their toll – beginning at early ages and rising significantly as males reach retirement age.
Because INTEGRIS is determined to raise awareness of this “silent crisis” and turn the tide, we’ve implemented an innovative men’s health initiative, Men’s Health University (a.k.a. Men-U). It’s designed to educate men and their families on the importance of men taking charge of their own health. Established in 2004, Men-U consists of free screenings and information, physician seminars, an annual wellness fair, (the 2006 event drew more than 700 people), and this website devoted solely to men’s health.
By bringing men back into the health care system, INTEGRIS is helping them overcome one of their biggest health risks – that of just being a man. And knowledge is power. Even if males are aware of just two numbers, blood pressure and cholesterol, and take active steps to lower them if either reaches an unhealthy range, it can make a huge difference in their longevity.
Me: Describe your vision for Integris Health. Where do you see Integris and/or MHC in 1, 5 or 10 years and what kind of impact do you plan to make?
SP: My vision for INTEGRIS Health is really coming together for our community. INTEGRIS is one of the few health systems in Oklahoma that gives back to the community in such a substantial manner. We are finding new partnership and collaborative opportunities with agencies and organizations who have similar missions. Additionally, we continue to explore innovative ways to make an impact on the health and wellness of our communities by sharing resources and services with partners like the Regional Food Bank, Oklahoma City County Health Department, the local Federally Qualified Health Center, churches and colleges. All of these groups are coming together to hold events, offer services, programs and share resources, all of which help us improve the lives and health of our targeted communities. I hope in the next year, our work to develop a comprehensive health, wellness and education resource center will come to fruition. I hope we can replicate this model across our service areas in the next 5 to 10 years. This will make a huge impact on patient access, especially if we can get other hospital systems to join with us.
Me: What are the current needs in Oklahoma City as they relate to social determinants of health (i.e SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)?
SP: The needs in all of these areas listed above are, unfortunately, not being met in many areas. We observe access to care being a recurring obstacle for many individuals. People can’t afford health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and/or their co-payments, so they have to use our emergency departments as a clinic or their healthcare provider. We have about 19 free clinics in the metro area that are at capacity due to unmet needs of populations with limited resources or circumstances – uninsured, undocumented and underprivileged.
Oklahoma, as a state, faces many challenges as documented in their annual state report, however, passionate community leaders like Steve Petty and his colleagues are working diligently to improve health outcomes at the local level.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead