Health should become a leading indicator of economic resilience

By Dennis Archambault

The correlation between population health and economic productivity is well-known to public health professionals, health economics, and health policy analysts, among others in the field. But that correlation isn’t often reflected in economic assessments or planning for the region.

Naheed Huq, manager of Economic and Community Vitality for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCG), this morning, provided the Rotary Club of Detroit A.M. a comprehensive array of priorities for her organization, including addressing health crises, racial inequities, and the aging workforce, among other aspects of promoting regional resiliency. However, ideally, it would have been good to have health presented as an integral component of economic vitality.

Huq noted the importance of helping the region navigate the multiple challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has created, including increasing broadband equity. To be fair, she indicated in answer to a question that health is factored into several priorities, including enhancing parks and trails, which have been found to improve health and mental well-being, especially among moderately people. But for one looking at community vitality through a health lens, the essential role of health seemed missing.

The impact of health is, unfortunately, best known in this context from the absence of health. A physically and mentally sick workforce creates more absenteeism, health care costs, and eventually factors into health benefit costs. Employers know the toll that substance abuse — particularly the opioid crisis — has on limiting the “labor-readiness” of the workforce. On the positive side, a physically and mentally well workforce is more “present” for work situations and theoretically works harder and smarter. The pandemic has demonstrated how an unhealthy segment of the population — lower-income people of color — suffer disproportionately in terms of immune response to a critical viral attack like the coronavirus. This affects the ability to work among this population and the ability of employers to have them work.

It makes good business sense to invest in good health benefits and population health at large. Planning agencies like SEMCOG should consider expanding the role of health from the byproduct of good public policy to an essential priority for assuring economic resilience. Maybe even think of the audacity of “creating health” as an objective.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.