By Scott Robertson
The 300-plus leaders in the fields of education and business who gathered on the campus of East Tennessee State University May 27 and 28 for the Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit heard academicians and healthcare industry experts explain how their education, health and economics affect each other.
Dr. Randy Wykoff, founding dean of the ETSU College of Public Health, explained how health affects education. Alan Levine, president and CEO of Mountain States Health Alliance talked about how education affects health, and both men talked about how business is affected by, and affects, both health and education.
Wykoff began by calling economic development, education and health, “a three-legged stool,” using data from several sources to show how each of the three factors affects the others.
“The Tennessee Valley Corridor faces significant health challenges we all need to work together to address,” Wykoff said. “To understand the health status of the corridor, we can compare the health status of the United States.”
While life expectancy in the U.S. is the longest it has ever been, nearly 80 years on average, Wykoff said, that figure ranks the U.S. only 33rd in the world. “As worrisome as that is,” Wykoff said, “the five states that make up the Tennessee Valley Corridor are all in the bottom half of the state rankings with the exception of Virginia, which has pretty wide economic disparities.”
Wykoff broke down the statistics even further, to measure life expectancy for the 149 counties that make up the corridor. “On average, our counties have a premature death rate that’s 31 percent higher than the national rate. Eighty-five percent of our counties fall in the bottom half of the nation. So here we are in the nation that ranks 33rd, and almost nine of every 10 counties fall in the bottom half of that nation. That has a direct impact on the corridor economy in the form of increased health spending, increased absenteeism and more.”
Wykoff said the major contributing factors to early death include behaviors such as smoking, drinking and overeating, “and ten years ago, that’s where my presentation on this would have ended. I would have said, ‘Folks, we have to get out and change behavior.’ And that message is still true. But today we are coming to understand the importance of social circumstances that impact health, and this is where business comes into the picture.”
Health is not just impacted by behaviors and by access to quality care, Wykoff said. “Our health is also impacted by the conditions in which we live, the so-called social determinants of health.”
Eighty percent of the counties in the corridor have a quarter or more of their children living in poverty, Wykoff said, and poverty is tied to health. A poor American is three times more likely to die before the age of 65 than a wealthy American. As the gap between wealthy regions and relatively poor regions like the corridor widens over time, the economic impact of poverty-related health issues grows.
“When we see that, people like me who care a great deal about improving the health of the region suddenly begin to realize that we can’t be successful without the help of the business community,” Wykoff said. “We can’t be successful unless we engage in economic development and job creation. We have to grow the economy to get people out of poverty to impact health.”
Similarly, education impacts health. Wykoff quoted statistics showing a five to seven year improvement in life expectancy for those with college degrees over high school dropouts. “So we can’t be successful in improving health unless we get more kids through high school, community college and college.”
And when it comes to economic development, education and health, said Wykoff, “none of the three can be successful without the other two. Every employer needs a healthy, educated drug-free workforce. Every superintendent of schools needs students and teachers who are healthy and they need an economic base to pay the costs of education. And every healthcare provider needs people who know the importance of good health and choose healthy behaviors, but who also have the resources to invest in their own lives.”
“The bottom line is that we all need to work together,” Wykoff said.
Levine rhetorically asked the crowd of engineers, executives and educators, “Why would two hospital systems care about the literacy rates for our youth?”
“There is a real intersection between health delivery, education, research and the variables that lead to a healthier society,” Levine continued. “It’s not just about preventing death. It’s about quality of life.”
In pointing out the similarities in behaviors that lead to drug addiction, diabetes, and obesity, Levine said, “Thirty years ago, the level of Type 2 diabetes in children was less than 5 percent. It’s now close to 50 percent if not more of new Type 2 cases of diabetes occurring in children.”
In 20 years, Levine said, today’s Type 2 diabetic children are going to live a lower quality life and be greater drains on the economy because they will be the individuals battling cardio-vascular disease, vision problems, and the rest of the issues that come with being diabetic.
“How do you solve these problems?” Levine asked, again rhetorically. “Well, the National Science Foundation says the rate of scientific advancement will be four to seven times faster than it was in the last 25 years. That would be like Sir Isaac Newton trying to figure out what the world would look like today and plan for it. It’s like going from the Wright brothers to the space shuttle in seven to 10 years.”
Moving that advancement in science into the healthcare marketplace is what will create opportunities for education, business and the healthcare industry to work together, Levine said. “It’s critically important to move from the research lab into practice. It’s not just about inventing things. It’s about changing how we deal with problems and diffusing solutions into communities.”
As healthcare moves away from the fee-for-service model, Levine said, it’s the organizations that bring research and care together that will have the brightest futures. “Investments in research net huge economic benefits,” he said. “More than 80 percent of new companies that started through a university-affiliated research endeavor located in the same state as their university affiliation. So it’s not just the economic benefit from jobs created by attracting research faculty and support staff, it’s the opportunity to build patents and new companies.
“Investments in research are the solution to healthcare problems,” Levine said. “That is the nature of the new competition.”