Louisiana Continues to Grow Its Well-Ahead Program

June 24, 2015|9:10 a.m.| ASTHO Staff

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (LADHH) was looking at some pretty bleak numbers in 2013. For starters, they were looking at an estimated $28 billion worth of economic and productivity costs lost to chronic diseases. (That’s billions with a “B.” Jamaica is an island nation not too far from Louisiana that has a gross domestic product for the entire country of $24 billion, so chronic disease was costing Louisiana to lose annually the equivalent of the entire output of the island nation.)

Louisiana also performed pretty dismally in the 2013 United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings: 48th overall, 50th in obesity, 48th in diabetes, and 46th in smoking. The Milken Institute estimated that if Louisianans made smarter choices to improve their wellbeing, they could avoid 612,000 cases of chronic conditions in 10 years.

LA DHH is dedicated to helping Louisianans make those smarter choices. While the department confronts the issue in myriad ways, one effort to improve the health and wellbeing of its citizens was to implement the Well-Ahead Louisiana initiative. Launched in the spring of 2014 by Governor Bobby Jindal and LADHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert, with Assistant Secretary for Public Health J.T. Lane, Well-Ahead is a certification program of sorts where the state designates healthy places around the state—known as WellSpots—that have voluntarily championed health and wellness. At the launch, the state showcased partners in the initiative that included large employers in the state, the state university system, hospitals, and the state restaurant association among others.

To achieve a WellSpot designation, a business, school, organization, hospital, restaurant, or childcare center can apply to the Louisiana Office of Public Health’s Health Promotion Team, which must certify that organization or institution meets certain benchmarks across many areas including tobacco, healthy babies, wellness planning, and food options.

In the first year, Louisiana designated 124 WellSpots and they’ve now surpassed 150.

"Living, learning, working and playing in healthier environments is a significant step for residents, students, employees, and their families to improving the health of our state, which we love so much. I am especially proud of every single WellSpot implementing a tobacco-free policy," says Lane in a press release. "We are seeing schools and businesses voluntarily step up and champion critical public health goals, including smoking cessation, healthy eating, and physical activity. WellSpots are breathing life and health into our state."

The state developed a simple website for the program that is easy to navigate and includes information for prospective WellSpot sites. The site also features an event listing where WellSpot designees can publicize a wellness event they are hosting. While still a work in progress, the vision for the events section is to be a lively place where Louisianans can find interesting and unique health and wellness activities that are close to their homes.

The success of the initiative in the first year gives the state freedom to target its efforts. For example, LADHH notes that the southern half of the state has a much higher proportion of WellSpots than the northern half. The department released a press release in late April, practically challenging the state’s northern cities to embrace the program to keep up with the southern areas.

Results that make a dent in the billions of dollars and the thousands suffering from chronic diseases will take years to accomplish, and the Well-Ahead initiative must work in concert with many other programs to get there. Louisiana is by no means the only state working on improving the health and wellness of its citizens—in fact it’s safe to say every state is. And while the results that matter most may not be in for quite some time, it’s worth noting that Louisiana is having success. The rapid number of WellSpot locations is one indication. The state also has made some incremental improvements according to America’s Health Rankings; in the 2014 rankings they were still 48th overall, but improved to 45th in obesity, 45th in diabetes, and 44th in smoking. As the father of China’s ancient philosophy of Taoism Lau-Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”