What accessing preventive health care should look like after the pandemic

What should the new phase of accessing health care look like?

The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted longtime disparities and problems with accessing health care—from underserved communities to racial inequities. But while health care providers work on treating current public health issues, “there is a desire for us to move our attention upstream to protecting, preserving, and promoting health and wellness,” said Dr. Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, during Fortune’s virtual Brainstorm Health conference on Wednesday.

For those like Williams, the key to giving the health consumer greater access to care needs to be thought of more holistically. “Health is more than the absence of disease, health is really about wellness and a capacity to thrive,” she explained. In that sense, the “new front door to health and wellness” needs to focus on delaying the need for health care “as long as we can and put our investments more toward protecting [and] preserving” a healthy life as long as possible, according to Williams.

Crucial in that push is the role of information technology in health care, and for individuals to not only have access to, but own, data about one’s health. In this new phase, Williams said that “people would have the trust and confidence that their data are available for making the right clinical decisions and are owned by the patient, the population, so they can also use that information to manage their own health and wellness.”

Using that information technology to improve and optimize health care is key: “If individuals who had chronic disease, hypertension or diabetes, knew their numbers [if their blood sugars were too high] and if they were empowered to join the health care professionals in caring for their own health…they would be empowered to make healthful decisions for themselves and for their families,” she said. That includes enabling individuals to gain access to a healthier diet of fruits and vegetables and less-processed foods.

But having all the information is only one piece of the puzzle: Access to the kinds of healthy “micro-steps,” as Williams calls them, is another story.

Bringing preventive health and wellness to the masses also has to take into account the access these communities have. “We are having people in a community where we’re telling them, ‘Eat well, eat healthfully,’ but in that community, there is not a ready access of those foods,” Williams said. The problem of communities living in so-called food deserts, where access to healthy food is limited (and which tend to occur more often in majority Black communities), has only come further into the forefront in recent months.

“We have to get the message and the opportunity to engage in the healthful behavior aligned,” Williams said. “That is going to require multiple sectors working together.”

Changing long-standing behaviors will likely take a village. While making “small, positive, health-forward decisions” is crucial for individuals, Williams suggests people need to be “surrounded in an ecosystem that is also health-forward” for those changes to take hold. “That ecosystem can be a family, can be the community, can be the workplace, [and] it can also be the policies that we write and implement as a nation,” she said.

But with only around 2.5% of health dollars budgeted for public health, a realignment of investment back into communities will be important in helping individuals make and sustain these healthy behaviors.

Nipping diseases in the bud (and encouraging healthy lifestyles in communities) could have a major net effect, she says: “We would have a healthier overall population that staves off so much of the morbidity and premature mortality that is attributable to preventable causes.”

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