It is less than 25 miles from northern Tulsa to the southern reaches of our city. But the communities are much further apart when you consider the metric of life expectancy: 70 years up north, 81 years down south. This 11-year gap is on full display in a new map released this week by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The map – which shows life expectancy by ZIP codes across Tulsa – demonstrates that communities separated by a few miles can be worlds apart when it comes to health.
We tend to think of health in health care terms – the doctors and hospitals we visit, or the prescriptions we receive. Without question, access to quality health care is critical to anyone’s well-being. In recent years, four new health clinics have opened across northern Tulsa, bringing more providers, medical home teams, and tailored health programs to our region’s area of greatest health need. These efforts have had a measurable effect on improving life expectancy in north Tulsa over these past 10 years. A recent Tulsa Health Department study demonstrated that the life expectancy gap between northern and southern Tulsa had improved from a 14-year difference in 2005 to an 11-year difference in 2015.
As a physician for more than a quarter-century, I am equally certain that much of what affects our health actually happens outside the doctor’s office, such as whether we eat nutritious food, engage in physical activity, or breathe clean air. In fact, those types of things can have an ever greater effect than medical care on our long-term health.
Another overlooked factor that affects health? Employment. Steady jobs with good wages are the ticket to families being able to raise their kids in neighborhoods with good schools and safe streets. Good jobs also tend to have good benefits, from health insurance to workplace wellness programs, that can ultimately affect how long and how well we live. On the flip side, unemployed Americans not only tend to face loss of income, but also are more likely to develop stress-related conditions (like a heart attack or stroke) or mental health problems such as depression.
As a result, employers play an important role in ensuring good health. This is true not only from their own “bottom line” health premium standpoint – after all, a healthier, more productive workforce is good for business – but also from a broader community perspective.
As past chairman of the board for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, I am proud of the ways in which businesses in our city have demonstrated their commitment to better these broader aspects of health. The chamber’s Partners in Education program connects business leaders with public schools, so that students can improve their academic and personal growth by learning new skills and planning for future success. Tulsa’s Future is another chamber-driven effort to create 15,000 new jobs with salaries of at least $50,000 and generate a capital investment of $1 billion as part of an action plan to grow and sustain regional development across the metropolitan area.
There’s a lot more we need to do to close health gaps, not only in our city but across Oklahoma. In fact, a study released last month showed that if residents of all counties in Oklahoma had the same opportunities for health, there would be 39,000 fewer unemployed people in our state. The associated health benefits of lowering unemployment on such a scale would be tremendous.
Tulsa, let’s continue to make the strong business case for better health. Our families are counting on it.
(This post was written by Gerard Clancy, M.D., dean of the Oxley College of Health Sciences and vice president of health affairs at The University of Tulsa.)