A community’s quality of life is measured by many factors, but physical and emotional health is, arguably, the most important.
Health behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol use, obesity and teenage birth rates are often the leading indicators that define a community’s health.
When it comes to ranking the state’s health by key risk factors, Lake County fares poorly, ranking 81st out of 92 Indiana counties. A 2013 County Health Rankings report revealed 26 percent of Lake County residents are smokers, 18 percent drink excessively and 34 percent are obese.
While the study ranked Porter and LaPorte counties healthier, 20th and 69th respectively, the Northwest Indiana region, as a whole, ranks poorly within the state and against national benchmarks.
These health rankings, published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and widely analyzed in One Region’s Quality of Life Indicators Report, are sobering.
To fully understand why our region ranks where and how it does, it is important that we, as a community, understand the lifestyle choices our citizens make and how these choices affect an individual’s health. It is the crucial first step in our ability to influence the state of our region’s health.
It is widely recognized that higher education leads to higher income. Similarly, higher income and education levels are also correlated with better health outcomes.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college graduates can expect to live at least five years longer than individuals who have not finished high school.
Those who have some higher education, and thus, greater income levels, naturally have easier access to healthier foods, safer homes and quality health care.
Studies also show a direct correlation between education levels and health literacy, the ability to make informed decisions about health and medical care.
Nursing students from Indiana University Northwest recently conducted a health literacy study, which found individuals from a regional outpatient center to have below average health literacy.
While a complementary study showed the greater Lake County population did have a slightly higher health literacy score, the collective results should not come as a surprise, since only 58 percent of the county has completed some college, a figure 12 percent below the national average.
As each study illustrates, there is strong interdependence among social and economic factors in relation to a community’s health.
Creating a culture that understands the multifaceted problems of poor health is essential to improving our collective health, and is a philosophy higher education institutions must incorporate into their curriculum.
Northwest Indiana’s future health care providers, trained throughout the region, must be cognizant of how our citizens listen, learn and live, so future clients’ health care needs can be tailored to meet affordability, accessibility and health literacy levels.
Through innovative, cross-disciplinary curriculum and experiential learning, students at IU Northwest and the IU School of Medicine – Northwest, have opportunities to work directly with the public, seeing firsthand the health care needs, as well as the social and economic factors, that affect our region’s residents.
Recently, an interprofessional education team consisting of nursing, dental and radiology students partnered to provide more than 100 free health check-ups to local residents walking along the Gleason Golf Course track, just west of campus. Interacting with the Glen Park residents has now led the students to expand future health check-ups to include social work and public affairs students, as well as student doctors from our four-year medical school.
Another recent service-learning project involved IU Northwest nursing and criminal justice students as they helped aid the emotional, physical and behavioral needs of residents residing in homeless and domestic violence shelters in Lake and Porter counties.
These partnerships and experiential learning opportunities illustrate the type of innovative curriculum necessary to prepare ethical, competent practitioners in health care policy, practice and human services.
Much like the interdisciplinary and interprofessional approach local universities are teaching, we, as a community, must also work together. Schools, public health agencies, community organizations, local not-for-profits and individuals all play a role in creating a more global, comprehensive view of health and medical care.
As with so many things, individual sectors, working alone, cannot hope to tackle the health challenges that exist in our region. Collaboration is critical.