How can design improve population health while also making a difference in our communities? This has long been an area of focus even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has certainly been a catalyst in instigating change. Now the question changes less from how this can be done and more towards: Can we be the generation that enacts this change?
With 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health being driven by the quality of healthcare, as pointed out in several studies and highlighted in a 2017 paper “Social Determinants of Health 101 for Health Care: Five Plus Five,” in the National Academy of Medicine, we should be looking beyond the walls of the hospital to look to improve our health. Food deserts resulting in poor nutrition, lack of affordable housing, and disproportionate access to care—alongside a rise in addictions, increase in behavioral health needs, and a sedentary lifestyle—all negatively affect health within a population.
COVID-19’s True Impact
While COVID-19 has been rightfully given a spotlight over the past year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, “Provisional Mortality Data—United States, 2020,” states that of the total deaths in the U.S. last year: 690,000 were from heart disease, 598,000 were from cancer, and 345,000 were COVID-19 related.
Furthermore, Definitive Health found that of the over 1.3 million claims of COVID-19, 76 percent of those cases were exacerbated by comorbidities. We could derive, then that a number significantly less than 345,000 was directly resultant of COVID-19. And yet, it has changed our lives forever.
According to the CDC study, “Health and Economic Costs of Chronic Diseases,” the top chronic diseases impacting health in our communities include heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even tooth decay. Of those eight identified, many are considered preventable. As a society, we have to take accountability for our health. As designers, we need to encourage better healthy behaviors for those that use the environments we design and guide clients to make choices that will help them see the benefits of investing in the health of the community.
Priority One: Movement
A paper published in the American Epidemiology Journal cites that replacing sitting with 30 minutes of activity a day will help a person live a longer and healthier life by 17 percent.
According to studies by the National Institute for Health, people in communities that encourage walking and biking within the normal course of their routine have better overall health compared to communities that require motorized transportation.
As designers, we can encourage movement through programs and spaces that help to choreograph healthier, more active lifestyles.
What if all of our major needs were within 15 minutes walking distance? Bike ride? Public transportation? Instead of segregating zones or neighborhoods for activities, a mix of economic and social functions for a more compact urban footprint would drive a more connected, more sustainable community.
Sustainability’s Role in Population Health
While certainly good for the planet, the World Health Organization (WHO) calculates that 24 percent of the world’s deaths are from environmental-related issues which impacts a community’s ability to have clean air, safe drinking water, food and shelter security. Finding strategies that help promote environmental stewardship and combat the contributors to climate change, then, also ultimately make our communities healthier.
We need to work together to help build stronger and healthier communities.
Jim Henry, AIA, NCARB, is senior vice president, director of health at CallisonRTKL. He can be reached at Jim.Henry@crtkl.com. In this series, he will explore how accelerated change is rapidly shaping our healthcare systems, built environments, and ways of thought when it comes to safe and healthy design.
Another version of this article previously appeared on Healthcare Design.