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Inaugural Future of Healthcare Conference concludes with plans to address area’s food deserts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Erica Bunch
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The inaugural Duval County Medical Society (DCMS) & DCMS Foundation Future of Healthcare Conference wrapped up on May 23 but, as Conference Chair Dr. Sunil Joshi pointed out, this is not the end, it’s just the beginning.

The conference spanned two days and covered many important topics including food deserts, obesity, cardiovascular disease, mental health, infant mortality, and healthcare disparities. Guest speakers included member and non-member physicians, elected officials, and even a former professional athlete. The conference was hosted at University of North Florida’s University Center with more than 200 Jacksonville medical professionals and community members in attendance.

To conclude the Conference, Dr. Joshi announced that next steps will focus on dealing with the area’s food deserts. A committee is already in the process of being formed to develop public policy to improve the issue.

“I want people who come [to the conference] -who love it and love the people here- to understand that they can make a difference,” Dr. Joshi said. “It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem.”

The DCMS has a long-standing tradition with the American Medical Association (AMA) which includes an annual visit to Duval County by the AMA President-elect. This year, the DCMS combi

ned this important and educational visit with the Future of Healthcare Conference. AMA President-elect David J. Barbe opened the conference with a keynote address concerning national issues such as healthcare reform, Medicaid funding, and the AMA’s opposition to the recently-passed American Health Care Act of 2017.

Additionally, Barbe praised the Future of Healthcare Conference, saying that he “has not attending anything like it” and commended DCMS leaders for bringing together the entire community to improve healthcare.

The goal of the conference was not to just identify problems, but to bring together a variety of perspectives to develop solutions, and ultimately improve public health both locally and nationally. After all, there was a single common idea that every

 guest speaker seemed to emphasize: making a difference on the local level is vital to working towards grand-scale changes.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry kicked off day two of the conference by sharing information on his Journey to One mission, a citywide campaign to improve health and ultimately become the healthiest county in the state. Through Journey to One, Curry hopes to promote and improve a variety of health factors in Jacksonville including nutrition, exercise, walkability, disease prevention and weight management.

The goal to become the number one healthiest county stems from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings. Kitty Jerome, the Director of Coaching and Outreach for the Action Center at County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, reminded attendees that Duval County is currently ranked 55th in health outcomes out of Florida’s 67 counties. This is especially concerning given that Jacksonville is home to some of the nation’s most renowned healthcare facilities, a sentiment that Jacksonville City Council President Lori Boyer also shared in her talk. However, Jacksonville’s size allows there to be a significant divide between its residents in terms of health.

“If the southside of Jacksonville was the entire city, in terms of quality of life, Jacksonville would be one of the most desirable places to live in this country,” Dr. Joshi said. “But we need to take care of those parts of Jacksonville that have not been taken care of.”

The consensus to focus on food deserts addresses this issue, since food deserts are characteristically located in low-income areas where the overall health of residents is lower than average.

Florida Deputy Secretary for Health Dr. Kelli Wells delved even further into the food desert crisis, pointing out Jacksonville’s Health Zone 1 (considered the urban core) as not just a food desert, but a “food swamp”- meaning that fast food with very little nutritional value makes up the majority of available food in the area. In Jacksonville, food deserts are mostly found near the 295 beltway, according to speaker Luke Layow, President and CEO of Feeding Northeast Florida. The organization works to establish food security across eight counties in Northeast Florida including Duval. Layow, whose talk focused primarily on food deserts, addressed “food insecurity,” or the uncertainty associated with having limited access to food. He explained the rate of food insecurity in Duval County is at 20 percent, which is five percent above the state average. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Hunger is not a supply issue,” he said. “It’s a logistics issue.”

Layow noted that Feeding Northeast Florida helps those in need have access to fresh and nutritious food that would otherwise be thrown out by grocers. Food pantries typically would not take perishable food, due to a lack of coolers or freezers to store them. However, the organization has created satellite food distribution centers across Northeast Florida that are equipped with coolers and freezers to handle perishable food donations. 57 percent of those served by the organization are families working full or part time, and nearly 30 percent are children, according to Layow.

In fact, several speakers noted the detrimental effect of food deserts on children and families. Dr. Wells identified links between areas with high infant mortality rates and areas in or around food deserts, calling infant mortality rates “a key measure of population health.” Faye Johnson, CEO of Northeast Florida’s Healthy Start Coalition, examined the way infant mortality is affected by healthcare disparities in low-income pregnant women. In addition to health, economic and social factors, babies of low-income mothers are often impacted by “toxic stress” during pregnancy.

Johnson, in her presentation, defined toxic stress as “stress caused by extreme poverty, neglect, abuse, exposure to violence, or severe depression” which hinders a developing brain. In worst case scenarios, the child will suffer long-term mental and physical health disadvantages that only perpetuate the cycle of health disparities throughout generations. However, the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition’s Magnolia Project aims to reduce these disparities by providing screenings, pre- and postnatal care, and education to low-income women in Health Zone 1. In addition, initiatives like Yoga in the Street have been shown to improve mood and reduce blood pressure in women who participate, helping to combat toxic stress.

Many speakers also shed light on mental health as a whole. Audrey Moran, Senior Vice President for Social Responsibility and Community Advocacy at Baptist Health, explained how Duval County’s severe shortage of psychiatric resources has made it difficult for mentally ill individuals to be treated.

She also shared her own son’s success story of overcoming depression through treatment at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. He gave her permission to share his story because he insisted that mental illness isn’t talked about enough. Moran’s son is now a senior psychology major at the University of North Florida, and aims to become a child psychologist.

Kitty Jerome also discussed mental health, which is one of the factors that weighs into the annual county health rankings. She noted stigma towards mental illness in the general public also discourages people to seek treatment.

“One thing is raising the issue and talking about it,” Jerome said. “Being sure that families know that they can open up conversations with kids about mental healthcare.”

Finally, obesity may have been the most heavily discussed topic throughout the conference. According to the County Health Rankings, 31 percent of adults in Duval County have a body mass index of 30 or more. The state average is 26 percent. The DCMS and City of Jacksonville are working to improve this statistic through 904 Mission One Million presented by 904THIN, a weight loss movement co-chaired by Mayor Curry and Dr. Joshi. The initiative was represented at the conference with a table providing guests an opportunity to sign up for the challenge and declare their personal goals. Since its launch in 2016, 904 Mission One Million participants have lost more than 75,000 pounds.

CEO Susan Neely of the American Beverage Association promoted the organization’s Balance Calories Initiative, which focuses on reducing calories within popular beverage companies, including PepsiCo., Coca Cola, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. The goal is to reduce beverage calories from sugar consumed per person by 20 percent by the year 2025. Neely called the Balance Calories Initiative the “single largest voluntary effort to reduce childhood obesity,” providing nearly 18,000 jobs and garnering $116.7M in charitable donations.

Many community organizations play a role in improving community health and combating obesity. Dr. Matt Longjohn, Vice President and National Health Officer of YMCA of the USA, explained that the YMCA has influenced over 15,000 changes nationwide to increase healthy eating and physical activity in early childhood and afterschool programs. Currently, 58 percent of YMCAs are located in areas where household income is below the national average, and their diabetes prevention program has been covered by Medicaid for beneficiaries with prediabetes, making their resources more inclusive to those who otherwise may struggle to access them.

Luckily, in addition to voluntary and community efforts like the Beverage Calories Initiative and the YMCA’s diabetes prevention program, state government plans are underway to address the issues discussed throughout the conference. Florida Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip listed healthy weight, public safety, maternal and child health, and behavioral health as just a few of the current priorities of the State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) for the period of 2017-2021. Now, the goal is to strategize on a local level.

“The government can’t do everything,” Dr. Joshi said. “The people have to start doing some things, and then the government will follow suit. I know it’s a naive, ‘I think everything’s gonna work’ attitude, but you’ve got to have that attitude to make things happen.”

Dr. Jeffrey Mechanick, President of the American College of Endocrinology, also insisted on a “community to government” approach. He cited his perspective as being inspired by a healthcare committee in Yakama, Washington that centered itself around functions, activity, structure, charity and dialogue, and encouraged people to participate through schools, workplaces, and places of worship.

Additionally, 2017 Duval County Medical Society President Dr. Tra’Chella Johnson-Foy said events like the Future of Healthcare Conference are another effective way to take action, as it gives stakeholders information to share with others in their fields.

“We want it to not stop here,” she said. “We want to be able to truly move beyond what’s going on in this room today and actually make some things happen, so that there can be some true outcomes from what we’re doing.”

Fortunately, in this day and age, communicating between stakeholders, providers, and healthcare representatives is easier than ever. Florida Senator Aaron P. Bean explained in depth how technology such as telehealth has aided the delivery process of information among both professionals and the general public.

In addition to the many engaging guest speakers, an exhibition hall showcased 20 locally and nationally-run organizations throughout the event. From Colonial Life, to Baptist Health, and We Care Jacksonville, the exhibition hall included a mix of for-profit and not-profit sponsors.

The DCMS also hosted a poster competition on opening night giving local residents and fellows an opportunity to showcase their research. Dr. Julio Perez-Downes of UF Health came in first place with his study on patient mortality with severely elevated NT-proBNP levels.

Director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University Rick Mullaney was the final speaker, and outlined the “pathway forward” with a seven-point public policy plan encouraging guests to take initiative with the problems discussed throughout the conference. He pointed out the diagnosing a problem is an early step, but to make a difference attendees will also have to develop a strategy, formalize a public policy and work to get it adopted.

According to Florida Medical Association President Dr. David Becker, these kinds of conferences are the first step to taking that initiative.

“To bring all these entities together to intercommunicate so that we can figure out how best to approach the problems, I think is the starting point of getting it going,” Dr. Becker said.

There are already suggestions on the table such as offering incentives to companies for bringing fresh food options to Health Zone 1. Dr. Joshi, in his concluding speech, offered the possibility of using already existing, city-provided infrastructure to create markets where there are currently food deserts. Additionally, he mentioned that this could benefit both economic development and public safety if the companies providing the food were to hire from zip codes with high rates of unemployed residents.

Overall, the 2017 Future of Healthcare Conference not only brought many great minds together, but paved the way for public policy and change in Duval County.

“An educated society tends to be a healthier society,” said Dr. Johnson Foy. “Once you are really, truly educating people on what those issues are, and are able to think about solutions, it creates an opportunity for the whole society to be healthier.”

The second annual Future of Healthcare Conference will be held May 21-22, 2018.