LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.—By just about every measure, West Virginia has the worst health in the nation. Its population is the country’s most obese. The state, which has the highest number of opioid-addicted individuals per capita, is years into a devastating and unabating opioid epidemic. Many of its citizens, after long careers in coal mining industry, struggle with chronic pain (some of which have since become hooked on opioids). Others are crippled by poverty. Even the state’s emergency responders are overwhelmed: the frequency and severity of drug overdoses has traumatized many of West Virginia’s first responders.
“We have every problem under the sun,” said E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University (WVU), speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference here Tuesday morning. The silver lining of West Virginia’s dire state, says Gee: a unifying purpose.
Gee, who previously presided over a number of high profile institutions including Vanderbilt, Brown, and Ohio State universities, only returned to the state in 2014—he was also WVU president in the 1980s—for that reason.
He saw the state university as a powerful tool for leading health reform in West Virginia, and possibly the wider world. “We’re really trying to find ways to use the resources of the university to improve quality of life,” he explained, adding that, as he sees it, “It’s really a unique laboratory in America. With 1.8 billion people, it’s large enough to have every problem in the country, but small enough to find solutions. We think of the state as our campus.”
Solutions are critical not just for the physical health of the population but the state’s financial health as well. West Virginia is also distinguished by the amount it pays for its bad health—26% of its GDP, more than any other state, said Clay Marsh, WVU’s vice president and executive dean for health sciences. He noted that the more a state spends, the worse its health outcomes are; the U.S, which spends 18% of its GDP and more than any other nation, has similarly poor results.
“The answer is not to spend more money,” Marsh said. “The answer is to do something different.” He’s trying to do that by going back to basics, or “trying to understand ‘What is health?’ and ‘How do we realize it?’” As part of that effort Marsh is studying the ecosystem of disease—identifying the factors, like hopelessness and isolation, that are at the root of health problems.
“I’m a personal believer that the opioid epidemic and the chronic disease burden we see in the country are symptoms of the problem, not the real problem,” he said. “The real problem is a deeper underlying disconnect to what makes us healthy.”
The team at WVU will be working up from that foundational level, trying to identify the stressors and factors that contribute to disease as well as behavioral modifications and interventions that can contribute to wellness. Technology will be key to the efforts: Ali Rezai, the Rockefeller Chair of Neuroscience at WVU says a number of sensors and imaging technologies will be used to measure everything from sleep cycles to pain. The group’s first clinical trial, undertaken with Thrive Global, the behavioral change and wellness company founded by Brainstorm Health co-chair Arianna Huffington, begins in May.
“It’s about getting to the root cause of these issues,” said Gee. “We’ll solve the problem locally and take it globally to the world.”
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here.