Reimagining a World for Health and Environmental Health for Sustainable Well-Being – Part 2

The second two-part exclusive Medika Life series on the intersection between public health and planetary health

This dialogue was a dynamic exchange of public health leadership voices at the Global Action Summit, hosted at the Belmont University Massey School of Business on December 7-8, 2021. The Summit explored major trends and drivers in the food, health, and economic sectors.  Bob Martineau, a Senior Partner, FINN Partners, and a global environmental policy and social impact leader, moderated this conversation with panelists Dr. James Hildreth, President & CEO of Meharry Medical College, in Nashville TN, Rachel Hodgdon, CEO and President of the International Well Building Institute, and Gil Bashe, Chair Global Health and Purpose, FINN Partners.

Here is the background of the four thought leaders who joined in conversation:

Bob Martineau, JD, a Senior Partner with FINN Partners, a global integrated marketing communications agency, who heads the Environment and Social Impact Group, and the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, served as moderator.

James Hildreth, MD, President and Chief Executive Officer of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the nation’s largest private, independent and historically black academic health sciences center. Dr. Hildreth is also a member of President Biden’s Health Equity Task Force. 

Rachel Hodgdon, CEO and President of the International WELL Building Institute. Rachel joined IWBI in November 2016, bringing her broad sustainability expertise and her track record as a leading global advocate for green schools, better buildings and social equity to IWBI’s work to advance human health through more vibrant communities and stronger organizations.

Gil Bashe, Chair Global Health and Purpose at FINN Partners.  He currently serves as editor-in-chief of MedikaLife, an online health magazine, and is a global correspondent for Health Tech World. He is also an ordained rabbi who is exploring how spiritual strength is a moral compass in addressing many of the world population’s most pressing physical needs.

Bob Martineau/FINN:  The discussion of many environmental and public health issues brings to the forefront environmental equity and social justice. So many studies show a direct correlation between public health in a community and the socio-economic impacts. Your work at Meharry with the social determinants of health speaks to that. It’s the lower income neighborhoods that sit next to factories and landfills and have contaminated water supplies. Low-income housing is the least energy efficient. How do we address these disparate impacts in our communities as we set public policy, both on the environmental health and the public health side of the coin?

Dr. Hildreth/Meharry:  First, I think we have to incentivize organizations, large and small, to start making different decisions about how they’re going to approach the business that they do and where they’re going to do it. Simple things like having walkways and parks and access to healthy foods would make such a huge difference in the lives of people. Even though I’m in healthcare, I understand that healthcare only accounts for about 10% of one’s overall health.

Health comes from being able to breathe clean air, eat healthy foods and have a certain level of educational attainment; that can only happen if organizations, even the governments that make the policies and laws that we live by, take a different approach to this. I point out that we spent $3.8 trillion on healthcare, but we’re not among the ten healthiest nations on the planet. If we just took 10% of that and use it to invest in children and their health and public health measures, we could actually change the dynamic for health in this country in a very dramatic way. But that’s going to take some will and dedication on the part of our leaders to get it done.

 Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI:  Health equity is a focus for IWBI as well.  Rabbi Bashe is working with us as a co-chair of our health equity advisory and the honor is mutual. We’re working on a new certification product or rating product that’s focused specifically on advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

We start with the social determinants of health as the foundation of that work. Dr. Hildreth made mention to the social determinants without using the name. The social determinants of health, which is sort of a universally accepted truth within the public health community, must tell us is that where you sit and who you sit next to, your physical and social environment, have a greater impact on your health and wellbeing than your access to healthcare, your lifestyle and behaviors and any other factor combined.

That is such a powerful way of thinking about what we have to shift to shift public health outcomes. We need to think about how to do that in an equitable fashion. What we learned during COVID-19, very quickly, is that those who had the least suffered the most, but that is true for virtually every other public health issue that is out there, from diabetes and obesity to heart disease to cancer. We need to think about how we can reach those communities and reach them first.

One of the most important ways to do that is through policy. I would say those on the line who come from the media and communications world, the other most important vehicle that we have, are through those engines. In other words, in order to shift health outcomes, we have to shift perspectives and perceptions in the communities that we serve; that can happen in any variety of ways, but we need to go straight to the heart of low-income communities, both within this country and outside of it. Places where there are high concentrations of black and brown people- rural communities, urban communities. These are the places with the highest areas of need.

 Bob Martineau/FINN:  Rachel, Gil, Dr. Hildreth, those are great points. You are right- framing that message, and as Gil alluded to, right now, we’re in an era in a world where we distrust so many people.

We distrust our politicians and government officials.  We even distrust scientists standing at a podium explaining the facts and the cause and effect. We are a distrustful group.

So, how do we frame those messages? And as you alluded to, you need to find the right messenger, who they trust, whether it’s their minister or a pop star celebrity. But how do we frame those messages to really hit home and explain the behaviors that you suggest we need to change so that we can address these health equity impacts? Any thoughts or suggestions from the three of you on that? I’ll let you jump in, Dr. Hildreth. Any thoughts on how we communicate with people so they will listen and take action given the distrustful era that we live in today?

Dr. Hildreth/Meharry:   I think that it’s very clear that when the messenger comes from the same cultural background and community as the population they’re engaging, messages are much better received, and people actually listen. Part of our problem today is that people only tune into and engage those who reinforce the disbeliefs and the negatives they bring to it. We’ve got to find a way to change that.

In our work at Meharry, in my work on President Biden’s Task Force, we recognize that trusted messenger means that the messenger comes from the community that you’re trying to engage. I want  to make one other point here: to solve some of the problems that we’ve been talking about there’s an issue that has to be addressed that is seldom talked about seriously. That is that there’s bias and racism in so many areas of life in our country that if we don’t address it, inequities will persist. We are not going to be able to fix it unless we address that issue, which is at the heart of much of what we’ve been talking about here today. All lives are valued the same. We say that, but there a lot of ways our actions seem to belie that we actually believe it.

Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI:  I’ll pick up where Dr. Hildreth left off. We know that intellectual agreement alone is not inspiration to act. We cannot continue to fool ourselves into thinking that if people accept the notion that climate change is real, that they’ll change the choices that they make day to day. We have to start to pivot our messaging to make it more about what’s in it for each one of us. What’s in it for our family’s health and well-being? What’s in it for our communities and their ability to thrive? What’s in it for organizations and their ability to be successful and do good work? I think that a more health focused spin on climate change is one that is proving to be extremely successful. This is about the livelihood of our families and of ourselves.

When we focus on solutions that are good for the planet, what we’re really doing is focusing on solutions that are good for ourselves- healthier food, more sustainable agricultural practices, more access to nature and to greenery, more physical activity, less driving. All these things serve to benefit us in so many different ways. It’s a matter of translating the solutions to universal imperatives that call us all to action. I think at the heart of all of it is our desire to be well and our desire for our families to be well.

Gil Bashe/FINN:  I want to reinforce some things that Dr. Hildreth and Rachel shared, and I also want to acknowledge their organizations for a moment. Meharry Medical College with Dr. Hildreth’s leadership is really doing some very incredible things in terms of education. I want to start there. Children of all ages, even adult children, have great influence on their peer group and their families. When you start training a fifth grader about the importance of environmental health in a way that they appreciate it, and feel safe, they go home and talk about it. Children can be very influential advocates on their parents. So, education, whether it’s children, whether it’s a medical school,

I think Dr. Hildreth nailed that. Rachel alluded to something, but it’s much more important than her passing comment- the International Well Building Institute certification. It’s an organization that is dedicated to examining every element of environmental health, from racial disparities and inequities, to making sure that areas have walking paths, to certification and really means setting standards. That is critical. I also want to say that there’s something that was not said that I’m worried about and that is our “cancel culture.”

Dr. Hildreth alluded to that and talked about how half the people follow this group, and half the people follow that group. We all end up producing produce from the same soil. We breathe the same air, we have to drink the same water, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of race, regardless of religion, yet we are terribly divided. Rachel alluded to something through my work in spirituality, and that is the fact that we are all here, visitors, finite visitors on this planet, and we have to remember that we’re placed here in partnership, perhaps with a higher source to do good things for future generations.

We’re in an Amazon-like, environment, People want it delivered tomorrow. People want healthier environments tomorrow. Well, guess what? Make it better now, for tomorrow. I think that’s what we have to understand. We can do great things immediately- recycling, sparing water, voting, as Rachel said, for people who want to educate our children appropriately. These are all things we can do now.

Bob Martineau/FINN:  Thanks, Gil. To wrap this up, I want to ask you one final question and get your thoughts. I think the message here is so correct that we need to bring it together.  As Dr. Hildreth said at the beginning, the planet will be just fine without us, but we can’t survive on an unhealthy planet. We need to use our own human ingenuity to fix the problems we’ve created, and we can because we created the problems. We can fix them and save us and our planet. So, how do we take those messages recognizing the need to personalize it so people see what’s in it for them?

The consequences of these health issues are generally the same, but the impact is different based on socioeconomics and race and education. What are one or two things that the attendees, the listeners can take back and help really take action to start to move the needle in their communities and in their institutions? In other words, what is your call to action?

 Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI:   I’ll present a three-part strategy. The first is a personal commitment that we all can think about making and that is to really take a look at how much time we spend on planes year over year. Again, this goes back to that notion that we’re gaining more than we’re giving up. During COVID, we learned the value of staying in one place, many of us, at least, who had the luxury of comfortable situations. For those of us who are on the road a lot, many of us spent more time with our partners and with our families. We realized that we could get a lot done remotely as opposed to face to face. So, I’m not saying don’t travel, I love that as much as anyone else, but I’m saying travel more efficiently and more mindfully. And when possible, think about alternative forms of transportation other than planes.

The second is another simple action that I think will be extraordinarily helpful to you in your personal life, and in your work life, no matter what industry you’re a part of, and that is to pick up a copy of Paul Hawkins book, Regeneration. Regeneration launched just a couple of months ago. It’s already a New York Times bestseller, and it is the most beautiful and complete reframing of solutions for solving the climate crisis, taking climate out of the atmosphere and healing our relationships to one another as we heal our relationship to the planet.

Finally, more of a global action- find out if the companies that you work for and otherwise associate yourself with have a plan around ESG and have a target as it relates to reducing their emissions. Ask the questions, volunteer where appropriate to make contributions, but start to make these demands. The more that we start to ask these for these commitments, I believe the more that the organizations that we align ourselves with will really start to heave that call because their one voice may not make a difference, but of course, a business of voices certainly can.

Dr. Hildreth/Meharry:  I guess my call to action is to remind people that leadership matters and we need to elect leaders who will do the things and make the right decisions in terms of the planet in our relationship to it.

Also, to remind people that as Gil said earlier, we’re all connected. We breathe the same air, and when I say “we,” I mean the global we. That is why I’m so concerned that unless we vaccinate the whole planet against COVID-19, none of us are going to be safe. Because these variants that we’re reading about and we’re concerned about, they can arise anywhere.  We need to start viewing ourselves as a global population that make decisions based on the fact that all of us are in this together. All seven and a half billion of us are in this together.

Gil Bashe/FINN:  My call to action is this: Invest more in science; invest more in engineering solutions so that we can correct the course; train our experts to be good communicators. And go out today and look at the eyes of a child very closely and say to yourself I imagine that child growing up to be a healthy 92-year-old with clean air and water and soil around them free of contamination so that we all have access to healthy food and water and a healthy world. Now imagine the opposite for that child and make your choice.

Our thanks to the Global Action Summit, hosted by the Belmont University Massey School of Business, for organizing this world-class conversation on planetary health.

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