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Everyone can instantly understand that access to health care is a big part of being healthy.

But a less intuitive truth is that it’s not the only part and might not even be the important one.

A long list of factors that include smoking, diet and exercise play as much a role in your health than how often you go to the doctor. So are relative levels of economic security and supportive family and friends

These factors are known as the “social determinants of health,” and they have historically been considered to be outside of the health care system, which is focused on diagnosing and treating people when they are injured or sick. But health care providers are becoming more vocal about the kinds of things that will keep people out of their facilities so that they won’t need care.

A great example of this is a new food pantry opening in the former Greyhound Bus station in downtown Portland, which will be operated by the Good Shepherd Food Bank and MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care provider.

Initially the food pantry will serve MaineHealth patients, offering healthy foods in an environment that’s free of stigma. This will be the third food pantry started by MaineHealth, following ones at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, and each was inspired by looking at the intersection between social factors and heath.

“Health and hunger are closely connected, and we know our communities alone can’t fill the needs associated with food insecurity,” Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer, said in a statement. “Our Community Health Needs Assessments have identified food insecurity as the No. 1 priority amongst social determinants of health. The food pantries are a part of our services as a health care organization, and a natural part of our continuum of care. We also believe it is necessary for us to collaborate with community partners to support and supplement existing work.”

The COVID pandemic has provided a clear window into the process. Where we live, where we work and our underlying health conditions played a big role in how sick we would get when exposed to the virus. Research even suggests that lower incomes are correlated with higher death rates.

Taking steps to keep people healthy goes against the financial incentives built into our system. A health care provider can make millions treating the results of poor nutrition, but nothing for running a food pantry. MaineHealth deserves credit for taking a broader view of its role. We need health care when we’re sick, but preventing illness is even better.


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