Health department director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has laid out a plan to improve Rhode Islanders’ health over the coming year. She described the plan to lawmakers Tuesday evening, a common gesture from the state's top health official. One of her overarching priorities is to reduce disparities across the state.
Some disparities are stark in Rhode Island: blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by chronic disease. And Alexander-Scott points out the environmental factors that drive those differences: things like a lack of access to healthy food, housing, and education. Her recommendation is to continue the investment in “health equity zones.” That’s a grant program to help communities improve quality of life and access to health care.
The director's presentation listed five major priorities for the coming year:
- Promote healthy living for all through all stages of life
- Ensure access to safe food, water, and healthy environments in all communities
- Prevent, investigate, control, and eliminate health hazards and emergent threats
- Promote a comprehensive health system that a person can navigate, access, and afford
- Analyze and communicate data to improve the public’s health
These are the health department's basic functions, largely unchanged from previous years. But some new challenges may hamper the agency's ability to carry them out, including tight budgets and a stagnant economy, a consolidating, shifting health care landscape, and growing health disparities.
Alexander-Scott acknowledged Rhode Island’s continuing high drug overdose death rate and pledged her department’s resources to track and tackle that problem, too. She co-chaired the governor's overdose prevention task force, now moving forward to implement a four-part plan.
Alexander-Scott also highlighted a new focus on improving data collection and sharing to track public health problems, supported by a previous investment from the General Assembly.