We live in a country where health disparities are so severe that even your zip code can predict your age.
But poor health outcomes are often the result of more than just your neighborhood; Social isolation, loneliness, and even a loss of faith and hope can affect a person’s well-being.
It is critical that people working in healthcare listen to and respond to the concerns and priorities of patients and address the many factors that contribute to a person’s overall well-being. This means that healthcare professionals need to treat the whole person.
Whole person health care is an approach to care that considers physical, mental, social and spiritual health as we work to improve health outcomes. This approach will make health care more equitable.
Right now, our health care system just falls short of our aspirations when it comes to taking care of the whole person. For example, our system frequently removes patients from hospital care into homelessness. Payment systems do not reward prevention and early intervention to improve health. There are significant disparities between those who receive quality treatment and preventive care; Economically fragile families often lack access to affordable health care.
To improve, we must strip the system down to its roots to correct design flaws that do not fully support a person’s health. We need to fundamentally change how people interact with the healthcare system and in their communities. After all, health is wealth. Without a healthy society, the economy suffers. We’ve seen that during the pandemic.
Thomas, an inspiring group of practitioners, caregivers, thought leaders, advocates and regulators dedicated to advancing health equity through whole person care gathered to share best practices for implementing change to the current system.
Whole person care is effective when implemented. Integrated behavioral health models such as accredited community behavioral health clinics, where people receive coordinated care for behavioral and substance abuse issues so they don’t get lost in the system, are promising. Through these models, we have seen that good health outcomes are made possible by the inter-professional team working together with funding sources to enable the integration of social, spiritual and cultural activities alongside physical and mental health.
To effect long-lasting change, we must move from awareness to action. We must look beyond the caregivers of today to the caregivers of tomorrow. At Morrison Family College of Health, our near-term goal is to be consistent in inclusiveness and ambitious in our creativity so that we intently focus on improving the health of individuals, families, and communities based on the lessons we impart to our students.
For example, pre-licensing nursing programs (both BSN and MSN) require clinical placements in public health and community organizations such as St. Paul General, Salvation Army, and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. Future learning opportunities will include more community partners and health entities.
Through these placements and what they experience through coursework, our nursing students learn that wellness and good health include more than physical therapy for an illness or disease. Reengineering healthcare means focusing the whole person in their social system and reimagining a system designed around families and solutions that engage the community.
We, as a society, cannot run on the edges of fixing when our basic assumptions continue to perpetuate healthy disparities. We must do more. We must demand social ingenuity and innovation through collaborations between professionals and partnerships with the community. We must take care of the whole person—mind, body, spirit, and community—in our schools and across our systems.
Dr. MayKao Hang is Vice President and Founding Dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at the University of St. Thomas and former Executive Director of the Wilder Foundation.