While the overall health of our state has begun to improve, Arkansas is still ranked near the bottom in many national health indicator reports. In fact, more than 50 percent of Arkansas adults are living with at least one chronic disease. These people struggle every day with illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or lung disease.
The cost of poor health is high. Too many Arkansans lose years of quality life due to chronic diseases. And, there’s an economic impact. Arkansas loses more than $17 billion a year to chronic disease in terms of treatment cost and lost productivity when people who are sick can’t work to their full capacity. We all bear this cost in one way or another.
As a physician, I know that most chronic disease is preventable. If you look at the upstream causes of nearly every one of the illnesses suffered by Arkansans, there you will find tobacco use, obesity, and physical inactivity. Why are these three things so prevalent in Arkansas and across the nation? One factor is, of course, personal choice and responsibility. But that is only a part of the issue. The world we live in has changed over the past few decades. More people eat many of their meals away from home, we drive most places we go, and we spend a lot of our time in front of a computer screen or television. Most importantly, our local communities play a key role in how easy or difficult it is to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Many people don’t have convenient access to affordable, healthy foods and safe places to walk, ride a bike or play. And, too many people simply don’t know what it takes to live a healthy lifestyle.
We also have more than half-a-million Arkansans without health insurance. Most of these are people who work but can’t afford the ever-rising cost of monthly premiums. People without insurance generally don’t get the preventive medical care they need to stay healthy or treatment for a chronic illness in the early stages when the chances are better for reversing or controlling it.
There is hope, however. Slowly but surely, we are making progress in Arkansas. As a state, we are working on a nation-leading initiative to restructure our health care system to better meet our citizens’ needs. We are working to improve quality and cost efficiency by changing the way we pay for health care services, accelerating the use of health information technology, strategically planning for a health care workforce to meet future needs, and reducing the number of uninsured Arkansans.
At a local level, mayors statewide recognize that a healthy community is vibrant and economically viable. They are working with their communities to create an environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice. Educators know that a healthy child is more likely to score well on tests, miss less school and have fewer behavioral problems. Schools are now providing healthier meals for our children and many are working to get kids physically active during the school day. Businesses throughout Arkansas understand that a healthy employee is more productive and many companies have committed resources to worksite wellness programs.
The Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) selection of the Greater Little Rock area as a focus of its work to reduce the prevalence of preventable diseases, reduce health care costs associated with preventable diseases, and improve quality of life is a welcome addition to Arkansas’s ongoing efforts. As Arkansas’s capital city, accomplishments made through the Clinton Health Matters Initiative in Little Rock can serve as an inspirational and actionable model for the rest of the state.