Like all smart husbands, Dr. Manny Sethi of Vanderbilt University Medical Center credits his wife as the main reason for his success.
If it wasn’t for her, Sethi promises, they would never have started up Healthy Tennessee, a new kind of grassroots health initiative that combines the fun of a county fair with the medical staff, resources and support of a health clinic.
In fact, Sethi said the whole thing was his wife’s idea from the get-go.
“I was frustrated, because we were spending so much money on the backend in these rural areas, treating problems like diabetes, heart disease and so forth, when we could have saved so much money and saved so many more lives by focusing on the preventative side of things,” Sethi said. “That’s when my wife told me, ‘you’re a doer, you take action, so go do something about it yourself.’”
It turned out to be good advice, because just last month Sethi was invited to the White House to personally share with President Trump his ideas for revitalizing rural health across the nation.
Since then, Sethi’s team has had the benefit of more complex lab equipment and a higher prominence on the health care radar. Ultimately, though, the crux of the idea behind Healthy Tennessee has remained unchanged.
By harnessing the manpower and resourcefulness of local communities, Sethi and his team are able to bring together health experts and regular citizens for vital crash-courses in healthy living. This means spotting problem areas before it’s too late, using education as a weapon against illness.
In practice, that means catching the early signs of diabetes, for example, and offering detailed plans to sway citizens onto a healthier path. It means catering programs to alleviate the symptoms of heart disease before it becomes deadly. And it means cutting in front of the immobility of hospital beds and treating problems before they become untreatable..
Not to mention: free mammograms, retinal eye-scans, dental work, urine analysis and disease screening.
“What makes this work is that we are using community members to help community members,” Sethi said. “Familiar faces in many cases, people you trust.”
That’s especially crucial in rural areas, where outside influence can often be met with mistrust and scorn, while local voices are often fundamental to the community.
Sethi pointed to a recent Healthy Tennessee fair in Pigeon Forge as evidence. After meeting with the local Chamber of Commerce, appearing on local TV and radio programs, and parlaying with the mayor and city council members, Sethi’s team was able to have more than 70 local doctors and nurses show up for the health fair.
Thanks to that kind of success, Sethi has received partnership offers — in the form of donations, resources or health-care infrastructure — from nearly 30 health care groups, including United Health and the Blue Cross Foundation.
Additionally, Sethi’s team has begun holding health care statewide symposiums, which bring together big business and citizens to strategize on how to build healthier communities through prevention and education.
Perhaps most notably, this summer Healthy Tennessee will bring in more than 100 nonprofit community health groups from across the state to sit together in one room and hash out five key tactics the groups can work on as a united coalition.
“Too often these health groups are working in silos, doing their own thing,” Sethi said. “But if we come together, we have the manpower, the resources and the dedication to make real progress happen.”
No big overarching government program, new health care bill, or messy bureaucratic process required — just hard work and passionate folks striving to make their communities healthier and stronger together.
“We’re bringing together all these people and all these groups who want to do good together,” Sethi concluded. “It’s about not waiting for someone to fix things for you. It’s about taking action and not necessarily waiting for the government to step up. Like my wife said all those years ago, it’s about going out there and doing something about it.”
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Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for
Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.