Q&A with Garth Graham, President of the Aetna Foundation
Through grants, sponsorships and employee volunteerism, Aetna and the Aetna Foundation are working to help improve the health of children and adults and to make the healthcare system more equitable and effective. Garth Graham, M.D., M.P.H., is the current president of the Aetna Foundation and former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during both the Bush and Obama administrations. Here he discusses some of the most pressing issues he’s seeing, as well as the Aetna Foundation.
People are using wearable technology and smartphone apps for just about everything these days. How do you see the Aetna Foundation’s commitment to technology playing a role in reshaping health?
Digital health technology provides a powerful tool to reach people with real-time health solutions that fit easily into their daily lives. In early 2014, the Aetna Foundation significantly expanded its commitment to digital health technology and mobile health solutions. Our $4 million, three-year commitment will help to implement and evaluate technology innovations that can help reach underserved communities with health solutions.
But does this technology really impact underserved groups?
People from all walks of life are increasingly relying on technology and we are increasingly seeing technology being utilized more among underserved communities, which offers an opportunity for direct education to individuals that have been hard to reach in the past. In fact, adults living in poverty account for 56% of cell phone-only households (CDC), making mobile technology a powerful equalizer for low-income communities. One example of our work is the Institute for eHealth Equity’s Text4Wellness program that focuses on reaching African American women ages 19 to 55 in Cleveland, Ohio. Women are a key audience because they not only make decisions about their own health, but are also more likely to be the decision-makers in their homes regarding food choices, meal preparation and wellness activities. Through programs like Text4Wellness, we are helping underserved communities access the tools that they already use daily to impact their health.
The Aetna Foundation’s new focus areas encourage healthy eating and active living. How do you reach people in underserved areas?
We know that physical activity and good nutrition can help to improve health, but not everyone, especially vulnerable populations, can access fresh fruits and vegetables and convenient or safe places to exercise. This is why we are supporting community-based initiatives that provide access to healthy living to underserved communities through our GoLocal: Cultivating Healthy Communities Program.
Through Aetna Foundation’s grassroots giving across the country, we are able to support programs that provide access to fresh foods and active living to vulnerable populations. One such nonprofit we are supporting, VALLEYLIFE, is introducing healthier foods and training their staff on how to prepare nutritious meals for people with disabilities in the organization’s group homes in Phoenix, Arizona. Programs like these are helping to reach people with healthy food and exercise options where they otherwise would be lacking in resources.
Making sure families, including kids, understand the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables can be an ongoing struggle. How is Aetna Foundation helping communities access healthy fruits and vegetables?
To help provide convenient access to healthy foods, Aetna Foundation is supporting programs that involve community gardens and urban farms. Recently, we extended our support to the American Heart Association to help fund a program called Teaching Gardens. This national program gives underserved elementary school students an opportunity to learn about, grow and harvest food. Through the program, the children are taught the value of good eating habits as well as the importance of physical activity. By supporting programs like this, the Aetna Foundation is helping communities access healthy, fresh food and knowledge about nutritious eating.
What initiatives and programs is Aetna Foundation supporting to encourage active living for kids?
We strongly believe that exercise and physical activity play a vital role in improving and maintaining healthy lifestyles. For this reason, we are supporting motion-oriented programs that encourage people to engage in an active lifestyle. One of our grantees, Students Run America, pairs volunteer teachers with at-risk youth to prepare for and run in the LA Marathon. Another program we support, Teens Run DC, provides low-income, at-risk youth access to runs and races while working alongside mentors who teach perseverance and goal setting. These types of programs help to teach discipline and responsibility while improving the health of the individuals participating in them.
How do you also encourage parents and other adults to engage in active living?
We look at the family as a whole. Many of our GoLocal community grants help youth and their families by collaborating together to prevent obesity, like the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. This program has partnered with several local churches in metro Atlanta to help faith leaders work with the whole family unit in preventing teen obesity. In Illinois, we work with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, which reaches out to adults and injured military veterans who have a physical or visual disability and provides them with targeted physical activity, wellness and nutrition programs.