Bill Frist wants you to know the poor health of Nashvillians is going to imperil the city’s ability to sustain its white-hot growth.
The former senator wants you to look at a group of kids on a playground and think about this: nearly one out of three lives in poverty. That’s going to drag down the city’s future workforce.
The Nashville that earned it-city status with its construction cranes, craft cocktails and rocketing housing sales is competing with another Nashville — one with a dire health problem. Peer cities such as Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati and Raleigh, N.C., are healthier than Nashville in many areas including obesity, smoking and children’s health.
The glitz and glam of the boom won’t last if people are sick.
“That’s inexcusable. Nashville is a hot city, a cool city, a modern city. Everyone is moving there. It just can’t be sustained. Workforces can’t be sustained,” said Frist, whose new mission is to do something about it.
Frist’s initiative, NashvilleHealth, is unprecedented. He wants to improve the overall health of an entire city by putting healthy living in the public consciousness and helping Nashville’s sickest and most disadvantaged citizens.
Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, is calling on the region’s formidable health care industry to take a leading role.
The irony of the plethora of health care companies in the city juxtaposed with its poor health became apparent to Frist as he helped establish a thought leader fellows program at the Nashville Health Care Council.
“Nashville is a thriving energetic city … that is attracting people from all over the country. Yet at the same time … despite the best health care services in the world, despite being the Silicon Valley of health services, the health of the 800,000 people who live in Davidson County is poor,” Frist said. “I mean underline poor.”
‘Problems that we can collectively work to fix’
Among the alarming health statistics:
Frist tapped Caroline Young, the former president of the Nashville Health Care Council, as executive director of NashvilleHealth, an initiative of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. The plan is to transition NashvilleHealth, which has seed funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The new initiative is getting attention from the Institute of Medicine as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“My vision is NashvilleHealth will have a lasting impact on the health of the community,” Young said. “I also see NashvilleHealth as an opportunity for us to bring ideas and learning from Nashville to a national stage.”
Some cities focus on one health behavior, such as smoking, “but nobody has really tried to move the overall population health measures of 800,000 people,” Frist said. “I’m convinced we can do it.”
NashvilleHealth will focus, at first, on hypertension, smoking cessation and child health.
The Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, led by Melinda Buntin, is working with NashvilleHealth on the data and research behind the initiatives.
“We have an expectation that there are things that work to fix these problems,” Buntin said. “They are important problems that we can collectively work to fix.”
Tennessee is among the least healthy states in the country. Within the state there are 21 counties healthier than Davidson.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Healthier Tennessee Communities is challenging towns and counties to be more active. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean added greenways and bike paths throughout the city.
Frist and Young want to harness the existing programs run by agencies, nonprofits, companies and universities to make sure they are working together.
‘Something we’ve got to pay attention to’
What happens at home impacts the workplace — and employers are taking note.
“Senator Frist has really opened my eyes to if you’re young and you’re a kid and you’re not healthy, you’re not going to do as well in terms of education and growth as a healthy child,” said Dr. Manish Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and founder of Healthy Tennessee, a nonprofit that hosts health fairs around the state.
Healthy Tennessee and Belmont University are hosting a symposium Wednesday during which representatives from Asurion, Dollar General, Nissan Corp. and Volkswagen Corp. will talk about the impact of health on the workplace.
Frist wants the largest employers to support NashvilleHealth because sick people mean more sick days.
He is confident he can make a difference, recalling the successes of his education initiative, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).
“Most CEOs in Nashville have no idea what the adult obesity rate is. We are worse than Charlotte, Austin. People think we’re beating all these other places,” Frist said. “I just think it’s so dramatic that we can shock people, and by shocking people they will step up and pay attention.”
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