Any discussion about improving our healthcare system must acknowledge the important role that is played by people caring for themselves and their loved ones. The most important step we can take to improve the healthcare system is to support and inspire an informed and widespread level of personal care.
Major health issues are related to behavior —smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, exercise, even safe driving. Other health issues must be addressed partly through behavior, including remembering to take medications.
Addressing public health problems such as obesity is at times viewed as the responsibility of government, medical professionals or fast food chains. But these problems should also be addressed by individuals working to change their own behavior.
Yet, when we do turn to individuals to improve their own health habits, we often overlook the real potential in ensuring their success via support groups of friends and co-workers, and via support mechanisms such as community institutions and social traditions.
Al Gore's message calling for us all, as individuals and collectively, to be responsible for our planet, resonates in this instance. We can all take responsibility to safeguard our health. We need a culture of healthy people in a healthy world.
How do we realize this vision?
Building on the tradition of setting aside a time for New Year's resolutions, we can promote lifestyle change with the use of “First Day” celebrations, which will convey health information and will draw forth personal commitments to healthier living.
The fundamental purpose of these celebrations, resonating with “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” is to celebrate healthy lifestyles for the new year. This will promote and reinforce our existing societal traditions and our recognition of the natural yearly cycle as one of renewal and improvement.
Health is serious business, but people should take care of their health in a positive way, mindful of new opportunities rather than focusing only on dangerous risks.
“First Day” also builds on “First Night,” the popular New Year’s Eve festivals full of arts, family activities and cultural entertainment. Started in 1976, First Night built upon people’s natural tendency to celebrate the new year, and channeled that impulse toward constructive cultural activities and fun.
First Day should not be driven solely by individuals—companies, communities, towns, cities, and states can all play a role. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) articulates a vision of health as pervading all aspects of life. We can leverage personal and community participation to improve public health.
Perhaps surprisingly, Walmart has led the way. In 2007, Walmart launched a program in which employees design and carry out “personal sustainability projects” including anything from recycling at home to quitting smoking to getting more exercise. Originally focused on the environment, participants naturally included personal health projects. Indeed, health for oneself, one’s family, community, country and world are all linked—both in effect and in desire and commitment for a better life.
Through this program, Walmart provides the framework for employees to exercise their capabilities. Working alongside others to accomplish goals has a positive effect on what people can accomplish. Employees self-monitor their progress for several weeks, and are encouraged to make the improvements long term. Co-workers encourage one another to meet their goals. Walmart’s popular program has been a great success, helping many employees improve their lives.
This idea can be made into a national or global activity of personal and collective improvement. Aligning it with New Year’s celebrations is a natural thing to do.
The preceding week, employers and government agencies can provide information and events. Organizations of different types—companies, religious organizations, schools, towns, states—can set up programs that encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and lifestyle, and they can provide supportive communities toward that end. The organizations themselves can undertake new commitments to improve social health and community well-being.
Some people may want their goals and commitments to be private or to share them with friends; others may be pleased to share them publicly. The key is for familiar institutions and networks to support each person’s desire to improve his or her life and each person’s journey toward better health.
Social network follow-up interactions can be planned. Internet-based and mobile device apps with calendars, reminders, and checklists can be developed to support people in reaching their goals.
We can dramatically improve health by inspiring individual responsibility and action. When people embrace their health as a personal opportunity and are also given community support, they reveal tremendous power to make lasting improvements in their own lives and each other’s.