Pitching in for health

MARSHALL – Dressed in knickerbockers, suspenders and a bow tie patterned with an image of the molecular surface of the common cold virus, state Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger visited Marshall Thursday afternoon to take suggestions, play a few rounds of horseshoes and hop on a bicycle and tour Marshall.

The commissioner spoke with doctors, city officials and educators gathered under a picnic shelter in Independence Park about the role community development plays in bettering public health.

The commissioner’s message focused on debunking the assumption that public health only relies on medical care, saying that, “people want safe neighborhoods, active transportation, healthy food and good schools… those are all health issues,”

Ehlinger rattled off statistics about how Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the country (third to be exact), the healthiest state for seniors and that Minnesota has some of the best infant mortality rates in the U.S. But there was also a bad statistic: Minnesota is lagging behind, with the rest of the U.S., in preventative health.

“In the late ’70s things changed. The leading causes of death went from infectious diseases to chronic diseases,” Ehlinger said. “We started spending more on care than prevention, and that’s when we started to diverge from our international comparatives.”

Ehlinger pushed that health is not just about medical care; by bettering our communities, we can lessen the disparity in health equality that is present among different socioeconomic groups in the state. According to Ehlinger, creating good communities takes stable housing, access to healthy food, good education and public transportation. He also said that paid maternity leave would help with infant health, as the U.S. is one of four countries in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave (the other three are Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua, New Guinea).

Increasing diversity is another factor in the nation’s health equality gap, according to Ehlinger. He said that we need to address these issues because “if these disparities remain the same with our increasing diversity, we will no longer be the third-healthiest state in the nation.”

On a more positive note, the commissioner reported that the relationship between state and local health organizations is “one of the strongest in the country.” By spending more health and human service dollars on public services instead of the current majority being spent on Medicare, the state would have better results, Ehlinger argued.

“We cannot treat ourselves into health,” Ehlinger said. “We really need to work on prevention and education. The investments we make now are for the future.”