Promoting Health Equity by Choice

This guest blog post was written by Dr. Mary Travis Bassett, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Bassett spoke at TEDMED 2015.

mary-bassettNew York City is one of the most diverse but racially segregated cities in the United States. Neighborhood segregation and structural racism, including poor housing conditions and limited educational opportunities, have led to unacceptable health disparities in our city. In turn, these health disparities have led to many lives – mainly the lives of poor New Yorkers and people of color – being cut short.

On average, New York City residents are expected to live longer than the average person in the United States. However, within the five boroughs, health outcomes can vary substantially from one subway stop to another. Average life expectancy rates can obscure those worrying variations between neighborhoods. In places like the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn, where I first lived when I was a little girl, people can expect to live lives about 8-10 years shorter than a person living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Murray Hill.

The usual explanation for these unhappy odds is that people in these neighborhoods are making a whole series of bad lifestyle choices. They eat too much, don’t exercise, smoke, drink, and so on. I’d like to challenge everyone to think differently.

Instead of thinking that people in Brownsville live shorter lives because they are choosing to eat unhealthy foods and choosing not to exercise enough, let’s think of how a lack of choice can impact a person’s health. For example, people don’t choose to live in a neighborhood where it’s unsafe to walk or exercise outside at night. People don’t choose to rent an apartment in a community that does not have a grocery store nearby. No one chooses to take a job that pays a wage impossible to live on, let alone live healthy on. The problem is not lifestyle choices that are bad for one’s health, but having too few choices that negatively affect a person’s health.

When we think about health, we have to think about restoring choices. For people to live healthier, they need good housing, a more livable wage, a good education, and safe spaces to exercise. All of these help build a neighborhood where people look out for each other. To achieve health equity, we have to confront all of the factors that affect a person’s ability to live a healthy life. That’s why as health commissioner, I will use every opportunity to speak out against injustice and rally support for health equity.

Our new initiative, Take Care New York 2020, seeks to do just that. It is the City’s blueprint for giving everyone the chance to live a healthier life. Its goal is twofold — to improve every community’s health, and to make greater strides in groups with the worst health outcomes, so that our city becomes a more equitable place for everyone. TCNY 2020 looks at traditional health factors as well as social factors, like how many people in a community graduated from high school or go to jail.

Additionally, the City’s investment in Pre-K for All will go a long way toward addressing the inequalities we’ve seen emerge so early in life, which reverberate across the lifespan. Investing in early childhood development is an anti-poverty measure, an anti-crime measure, and it is good for both mental and physical health. For example, the number of words a child knows at age 3 predicts how well he will do on reading tests in third grade, predicts his likelihood of graduating from high school, and so on. Early investment is key to undoing decades of injustice.

I believe that achieving health equity is a shared responsibility, and we can only accomplish real change by working together. This is a big challenge, but I am hopeful. New Yorkers are fortunate to have a Mayor and an administration that is committed to addressing longstanding inequality. Every city needs such committed leadership if we are to see a day where someone’s ZIP code does not determine their health. I hope you will join us on this pursuit of equity.