Health means something different to every individual. It’s time for a more holistic approach to healthcare.
A former patient once told me that, for her, health was being able to eat chocolate cake. I love this definition of health because of its individuality and the contradictory nature of relating health with chocolate cake. Health, as a concept, can be notoriously hard to define at an individual level, while simultaneously having a widely accepted definition at a societal level. At the individual level there could be many factors that kept this patient from eating chocolate cake. There are some obvious reasons why cake might be her paradigm of health, perhaps she was trying to lose weight or lower her blood sugar levels and getting to indulge in cake would be a sign of a job well done. Or, maybe less obviously, chocolate cake was a tradition associated with family celebrations, so her definition of health relied on emotional connection and physical proximity to loved ones. Or maybe she was happy with the life she had lived and wanted to spend the rest of her days eating what she wanted, tossing cares and consequences to the wind. And it’s very well possible that her definition of health was a combination of all three and more. What I took away from that interaction is that individuals have their own concept of health that is multi-dimensional. Like a good chocolate cake, an individual’s concept of health has layers to it. At a time when American spending on healthcare is increasing while positive outcomes are decreasing, it seems that our healthcare system has widely missed the mark on promoting health. According to research done by the Boston Foundation and the New England Healthcare Institute, medical care is 10-20% of a person’s health but 88% of America’s healthcare expenditures. This is not the fault of our medical providers, either. In 2021, the American Medical Association reported that 63% of physicians were experiencing burnout, and the primary cause was not the pandemic but the “systems in which physicians work.” The system is clearly misaligned when it comes to the health of our country and affects both patients and their healthcare providers. System change, especially healthcare system change, is notoriously difficult and drawn out. What then can we do to meaningfully change the system in Waco? We start by thinking differently about health. Access to medical care is a critical part of the picture, but it can’t be the whole picture. We have to recognize that food is healthcare, housing is healthcare, having a community is healthcare, upward financial mobility is healthcare, and the list goes on. Once we begin to think about healthcare differently, we then have to practice medicine differently too. Not that our medical professionals need to become real estate agents, nor do our food pantries need to open medical clinics. Instead, we build meaningful partnerships between organizations and share relevant information (while maintaining HIPAA compliance, of course) so that a homeless patient visiting a doctor has the same outcome as a homeless person engaging our local housing services; a hungry family visiting a food pantry has the same outcome as that same family visiting workforce training programs, and vice versa. Prosper Waco is in the midst of collecting responses on our community partners’ readiness to engage in data sharing, to begin the process toward a set of community best practices for collaboration. With our Behavioral Health, Access to Healthcare, and Hunger Free Coalitions starting back up at the beginning of 2024, Waco organizations- already working together in so many instances – will be able to more deeply collaborate in support of systems-level change to make our healthcare system more comprehensive and more accessible for the marginalized in our community. It’s only when our system is accessible, comprehensive, and effective, that we can have a healthier Waco or, as that patient shared, it’s only then that we can have our cake and eat it too.
Director of Health Initiatives