Merlene Davis: Knowledge is key to starting a health care revolution

Torrie Harris is director of the Office of Health Equity.
Torrie Harris is director of the Office of Health Equity.

Torrie Harris wants to start a revolution.

Starting Wednesday, the first volley in that revolution will be fired with the opening bell of the state's first Health Equity Network Summit. At the summit, Harris — whose goal is to inform people about Kentucky's health inequities — wants to show how interconnected our public health system is.

Harris and representatives from myriad agencies say the more connected we all are, the fewer health inequities there will be.

"Health equity is about a movement," said Harris, director of the Office of Health Equity in the Kentucky Department for Public Health. "We know we can't do this by ourselves. It is basically about starting a revolution."

The summit, "Health Equity Regional Outcomes (HERO): Be a Local Champion," is free and open to all, particularly ordinary residents. After all, most revolutions start with grass-roots action.

With interested parties in one location, Harris wants there to be conversation about the reasons we are sick and in many cases getting sicker. Disease isn't just about genetics or our destructive behavior. Many times disease arises from a lack of access to health care or to fresh foods or to enough money to take advantage of healthy lifestyles.

The healthier we are, the fewer days we miss at work, the better we perform at school, the fewer crimes we commit.

Because all aspects of society can benefit from healthier residents, all aspects of society must be a part of our road to better health.

"We really want to engage the community," Harris said.

The summit is hosted by the Health Equity Network of Lexington-Fayette County, a melding of educational, health care and government agencies whose objective is to get us healthy.

While that partnership has worked well for three years, it lacks one thing: us.

"We want to build a community partnership," said Mark A. Johnson, health equity officer at the Fayette County Health Department. "Everyone is not on the same page."

Through the talks and workshops at the summit, residents will learn how to better communicate with their providers; how our environment can make us sick sometimes and about policy changes that only legislators can address, such as stronger building codes for safer housing.

The network began in 2008 after several people viewed Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick, a documentary that suggested good health hinges on more than genetics, habits and health care. Our environment and social circumstances play a significant role as well.

"There are things we can do about that," Johnson said.

Harris, whose office offered grants to local health departments to get networks started, said participants won't be sent home with handouts, but will be given contact information of network members who can provide that information.

Hopefully those of us in the grass-roots will take that information and pass it along at our churches, synagogues, temples and schools. Harris wants us talking about healthier habits with family members and friends.

Soon, we all will be taking an active role in our health and not relying on health professionals. That's the revolution Harris envisions.

"We want people to think about health in a different way," she said, "so they can learn, find their voice and fight for their communities and have knowledge behind it."

But with so many attacks on the new health care law, on Medicare, and with new threats to Social Security, we need to do all we can. We can start by attending the summit.