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Panel discusses health, income, social statusTell North Platte what you think

LINCOLN—A series of statewide health care dialogues concluded Dec. 1 with a five-person panel discussion about the overall health of Americans in general and Nebraskans in particular.

Among the key points was the distinction between leading healthy lives and health care. Panelist Andrew Holtz, an Oregon-based independent journalist and former CNN correspondent, said it is a common misconception that increasing health care will also increase health.

Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor said that distinction has been missing from the health care reform debate.

“We’ve got to have a debate on what our expectations are for our health care system,” he said.

But other factors play into health.

The panel agreed that factors such as income levels and social status are important indicators of the public’s overall health.

“Social status seems to play a predictive role in health,” said Holtz, who cited the so-called Whitehall Study, a British report on social factors relating to health. “Your status in the pecking order seems to have a correlation in your health.”

While stress is also a likely factor that explains the study’s findings, income levels are also a likely contributing factor. The panel noted that lower-income families struggle to make healthier eating decisions when faced with the option of buying one loaf of multi-grain bread or, for the same price, three loaves of less healthy white bread. And a burger at a fast food chain is often cheaper and faster than a healthy home-cooked meal.

As an example, Holtz pointed to the overall health and longevity of the Japanese, who lead the world in most health measures. Before World War II, the Japanese were among the shortest-lived people in the world. But after the war, the monarchical system of government was scrapped for a democratic system.

“Then a funny thing happened,” Holtz said. “They all started living longer.”

Holtz said studies show that the key element in Japan’s change has more do with its social structure and less with eating and exercise habits. The difference between the wealthiest and poorest in Japan is much narrower than it is in the United States.

“In societies where there’s less inequality, people live longer,” he said, noting that Sweden also ranks high in longevity and has a similarly “flat” social structure.

Trudy Lieberman, a widely respected journalist who moderated the panel, said health issues that emanate from obesity and smoking are often blamed on the “victims” for making the wrong choices. But, she wondered, the media may be partly to blame for the perception.

“We’re probably guilty,” said Mark Anderson, a health reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star. But, he said, health care has become a divisive issue that makes coverage difficult.

“You can’t write a health care story without the left and right wing throwing bricks at you,” he said.

Holtz said if small-town, community news outlets were interested in covering local health, a good place to start is a website called countyhealthrankings.org. The site measures various indicators of health and ranks counties in each state. Cedar County is the healthiest county in Nebraska, according to the site.

The panel discussion was the fifth and final about health care held on Nebraska’s statewide Telehealth Network, which is available at 80 hospitals and 19 public health department offices. The series was a joint venture organized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Nebraska Hospital Association and the Nebraska Press Association.

All five panel discussions will be available on DVD and can be obtained by contacting Steve Van Hoosen at svanhoosen@stez.org. Previous discussion topics were Medicare/Medicaid, long term care and assisted living, health care payments, and patient safety.

Lieberman, who moderated all the discussions, said the goal was bringing greater awareness and understanding between the public and health care professionals.

“There are very few issues that are surrounded by so much misinformation, disinformation and a lack of information,” she said.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 12/4/2011
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