GREENSBORO — A community’s wellness goes beyond addressing equity in health care, leaders say, which is why Guilford County is teaming up with Cone Health to look for innovative ways to solve old — and new — issues affecting those most in need.
Melvin “Skip” Alston, chairman of Guilford County’s Board of Commissioners, said it’s crucial to address “the whole picture” of physical, mental, financial and social wellness for residents. The need for improvements, he said, became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected everyone in some way.
“There is no doubt the health and economic impacts fell most severely on our lower-income residents, people of color, and Tribal communities, and that is directly related to their access to basic necessities like healthy food, a good-paying job and housing,” Alston said in a statement.
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The combined team of six to eight staff members from Guilford County and Cone Health is funded in part through the county’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds. This initiative will rely on the participation of county residents and use a process called community-based design to refine ideas through local research, testing and piloting.
“Communities know best what they need to thrive and, in the absence of government programs, have been working together to build their own systems for improving health for many years,” County Manager Michael Halford said in a statement. “We want to learn what has worked and where the opportunities exist to partner more deeply to ensure all residents in Guilford County are able to thrive regardless of where they live.”
Julie Smith, a spokeswoman for Guilford County, said the team will focus on qualified census tracts — where 50% of households earn below 60% of the area median gross income or have a poverty rate of 25% or more. There are about 30 such tracts in Guilford County, mainly in the central and southwestern portions of the county, Smith said.
As the team looks at various needs, their work could reach across many different areas, including social services, public health, juvenile detention, EMS, and behavioral health, Smith said.
“This is broader than just health disparities and could include access to health care, insurance, employment, transportation, and education and training,” as well as access to food, Smith said.
Local organizations have already identified some of the inequities facing area residents. In Guilford County, data shows health gaps even when other factors are accounted for. As an example, Black and Hispanic patients develop pneumonia, on average, 10 years younger than white patients, even though they have the same number of chronic health conditions, according to a joint news release from the county and Cone Health.
Black babies in the county are twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white infants. On average, white residents live three years longer than Black residents, officials said in the news release.
“We know how to treat diabetes and heart disease and other chronic conditions that lead to poor health,” Cone Health CEO Dr. Mary Jo Cagle said in a statement. “We’ve been working within these communities for years, with painfully few improvements. Clearly, a new approach is needed, and we are taking it.”