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Health & Science

How A Community Can Fill In The Pieces -- And Cut The Costs -- Of A Healthy Life

Soma Stout

Ohio continues to have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and babies born into two Akron ZIP codes have been more likely to die before their first birthday than anywhere else in the state. A summit in Akron today highlighted ways that’s changing. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with the keynote speaker, who’s leading an effort to improve health equity worldwide.

Dr. Soma Stout heads “100 Million Healthier Lives,” an effort to improve health worldwide by 2020 by pooling resources from multiple disciplines – some of which on the surface, may seem, to have little to do with health. She says it’s the same approach Akron is using to address a startling statistics.

“Three kindergarten classrooms full (of children) would die in a year, and the people in Akron have decided to do something about it. And the kinds of things they’ve decided to do, like the Pathways Community Hub model -- ..which coordinates social  services, improves prenatal care services – these are all crucial differences to how we address health and well-being and equity.”

She notes that beyond infant mortality, exposure to toxic stress in families – including violence, poverty and homelessness – sows the seeds of chronic health conditions in the youngest of children.

Contributing to chronic diseases
Poverty can release the stress hormones in very young children that are a precursor to diabetes.

“It creates premature aging and leads to the development of chronic disease in a way that can reduce your lifespan by 20 or 25 years. When you’re exposed to stress, the stress hormones in your body become activated,” she says, and that can lead to obesity, a problem absorbing insulin and, ultimately, diabetes.

Stout says the resources to deal with the problems are already in the healthcare system  but need to be redirected.

For example, children born prematurely cost society on average of $50,000 a year for life as opposed to the $5,000 for full-term babies.

“We’re happy to invest that $50,000 a year, … but that isn’t the best investment of our resources. If we could support that mother to help that child before the child is born, if we could support that mom and that family from birth through age 5, we could actually have a different outcome for that child.”

'To understand who isn't thriving and that we're interconnected, that's what creates a change.'

Stout acknowledges this week’s presidential election created a lot of uncertainty, but she remains encouraged.

“I think we are at a moment in this country’s history where we don’t have a civic discourse, where we are not hearing each other or understanding the pain that different people are feeling.”

But the whole-community approach, she says, can change more than health incomes.

It can “create spaces to come together … to understand who isn’t thriving and that we’re interconnected. That’s what creates a change.

“And what’s encouraging to me is that people have very different politics and different ways of  believing how the world should be solved, but what I see is that people care in every community of the world where people aren’t thriving.”

President-Elect Donald Trump has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which Stout says has benefits beyond providing insurance for millions of people who didn’t have it. She maintains it has helped control costs by stressing prevention.

“Whether we call it the Affordable Care Act or not, the country has to realize that it needs to invest in prevention because the reality is, we’re about to spend 20 percent of our GDP by 2020 on healthcare. … That increase and the decrease in the amount of money left over to spend on education and social services, etc. is just not the right way to go.”

Stout  says education, poverty and race all have to be viewed as crucial aspects of health, and says the Pathways effort Akron is employing has helped cut infant mortality by 50 percent.