2020 event features former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin
The Rapides Foundation’s seventh annual Symposium, held on October 7, focused on how a community can improve its overall health status by addressing behavioral and social determinants of health.
The event featured Dr. Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA, the 18th Surgeon General of the United States, who explained that improving the overall health of a community and eliminating health disparities of vulnerable populations takes a holistic approach that extends well beyond medical facilities.
“I was really pleased to be a part of the Symposium and try to get people to understand that health does not just occur in the hospitals and the doctors’ offices. Health occurs where we live, where we learn, where we work, where we play and where we pray,” she said. Social and behavioral factors such as income and education level, what you eat, how much exercise you get and even where you live play a role in a person’s health. “We also know that where you live, your zip code, is a more likely predictor of your health and longevity than your genetic code.”
Each year the Foundation presents the Symposium as a way to gather around a topic of importance and to recognize the creation of The Rapides Foundation on September 1, 1994. This was the first time the symposium has been presented in a virtual format. It was originally scheduled for early September, but postponed because of impacts from Hurricane Laura.
The Rapides Foundation’s mission is to improve the health status of Central Louisiana. It focuses its work in three strategic areas: Healthy People, to improve access to healthcare and to promote healthy behaviors; Education, to increase the level of educational attainment and achievement as the primary path to improved economic, social and health status; and Healthy Communities, to improve economic opportunity and family income, and enhance civic and community opportunities for more effective leaders and organizations.
President and CEO Joe Rosier
“We learned very early on, that 50 percent of premature mortality and disability were from health behaviors, and that there was a high correlation with levels of education and income. This guides our thinking of how to deploy our resources to achieve our mission,” said Joe Rosier, the Foundation’s President and CEO. “We recognize we must address the risk factors and underlying causes which impact community health status, and that a broader definition of health must include a breadth of health factors rather than strictly the absence of disease.”
“If you look at health outcomes, these choices reflect our best thinking of where our resources can have the most impact in improving health status in a measurable and sustainable way. And that is the challenge for our board and our staff,” he said.
Dr. Benjamin has spent her career seeing the impact of healthcare disparities and the determinants of health on several generations of patients in her community. As former U.S. Surgeon General and founder/CEO of the Bayou Clinic and its partner organization, the Gulf States Health Policy Center in rural Alabama, she has been the driving force behind research and policies to promote equity and access. Taking a public and population health perspective, Dr. Benjamin often speaks about the range of social determinants, and describes practices and policies that will narrow the health gap.
When she was U.S. Surgeon General under former President Obama, Dr. Benjamin released the first-ever "National Prevention Strategy: America's Plan for Better Health and Wellness.” The strategy served as a blueprint for moving the nation’s healthcare system from one based on sickness and disease to one based on wellness and prevention.
“As surgeon general I went around the country trying to get organizations just like The Rapides Foundation to bring this strategy to light because it’s not any good if it sits on a shelf. If you look at The Rapides Foundation, they’re doing exactly the same things that we are recommended.
Their focus on healthy people, education and healthy communities are the basic pillars of the National Prevention Strategy. I wish every community had a Rapides Foundation.”
“While many of us believe giving all Americans healthcare coverage is the first step to reducing health disparities that plague our country, we know to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities we have to address the social determinants of health such as poverty and dropout rates,” she added. “I can’t overestimate the importance of education. The health differences between the more educated and less educated are significant. The U.S. death rate for people with less than 12 years of education is two and a half times higher than for those with 13 or more years of education, and an additional four years of education was found to lower the five year mortality, reduce the risk of heart disease and of diabetes by 10 percentage points each.”
Dr. Benjamin said health prevention is a key to building a stronger and sustainable healthcare system. “I always say that health does not occur in the doctors' office and the hospitals only. We have to make prevention part of our everyday lives and empower people to make better health choices. So I was pleased when we launched an agenda to help Americans get healthy, live longer, stay well and thrive.”
Dr. Benjamin said the coronavirus pandemic shed a light on the importance of addressing health disparities in the nation.
“Early on in the COVID pandemic we realized that people with underlying conditions were being affected more, particularly people of color and other vulnerable populations. We knew about cancer and strokes and things, but what we didn’t think about were high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and high blood sugar. We also started seeing that it wasn’t because African Americans are more at risk, it was because of the social determinants. Rural communities have the same issues and the same types of social determinants and COVID has brought that to our awareness in a way that we never wanted to see.”
Rosier agreed the coronavirus pandemic brought to light the importance of the work that The Rapides Foundation has done since its 1994 beginnings.
“From the start of the pandemic it was clear that people with the type of underlying conditions that our work focuses on are being hardest hit by the virus. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t change our focus away from our existing work,” he said. “We chose to stay the course because in continuing to work on the behavioral and social determinants of health, you ultimately improve health in the community and provide greater resilience against all disease, including the coronavirus.”