Health is a basic human need. Textbooks define it as a state of emotional and physical well-being. When we are healthy, we can experience life to the fullest, becoming more satisfied and productive members of our community. With good health, we are able to face each day with resilience and hope, even when the going gets tough. It allows us to develop solid connections with others, creating social and economic supports to carry us forward in pursuit of our personal and professional goals. Health is something we all wish for.
But health’s delicate balance can be difficult to maintain in our complex world, laden with day-to-day stressors that erode our sense of well-being and reveal our frailties. Keeping our health is easier for some than others, and is influenced by social determinants that include economic stability, safe and affordable housing, access to education, public safety, availability of healthy foods, access to local emergency and health services, and healthy environments. It can also be impacted by the decisions we make, such as what we eat, the exercise we get, how we manage stress, not smoking, and our genetics, the DNA we inherit from our ancestors that provides a complicated blueprint of how we might fare. Maintaining our health is not always simple, and very often depends on others in our community. We sometimes need the help of medical professionals. We need them to be available when we need them, and their services to be affordable. We need to know about risks to our health that may be unique to our community, like tick-borne illnesses, and what to do about them. We need an environment that is clean and healthy.
For more than 25 years, the Dukes County Health Council has been addressing these concerns, quietly working behind the scenes to identify gaps in our Island’s healthcare network and finding ways to fill them. Over its 25-year history, the Dukes County Health Council has pursued the vision of “a healthy community with seamless, complementary, coordinated, and accessible health and wellness services.” Its 37 volunteer members, appointed by the Dukes County Commission, have laid the groundwork for the creation of important health and human service organizations Island-wide. These include Island Health Care, M.V. Health Care Access, the Youth Task Force, and Healthy Aging M.V.
In 1996, the council’s first major achievement was to bring affordable healthcare to all Island residents. At the time, a lack of insurance was identified as our most pressing health concern, with 20 percent of our population lacking coverage. This was two times the national average. Through the tenacity and hard work of council members, the Island Health Plan was conceived. Its executive director, Cynthia Mitchell, diligently pursued the funding needed to reduce barriers to coverage through sliding scale premiums, subsidies to employees, minimal co-pays and few, if any, deductibles. It was a bold initiative, one that gained national attention in the Washington Post, and transformed the lives of hundreds of Island residents who were finally able to derive the health benefits of being medically insured. The work of the Health Council anticipated many of the initiatives now included in the Affordable Care Act.
Members of the Health Council reflect the breadth and strength of our community. They are concerned citizens, health professionals, public health experts, community and organization leaders. They ask, “What are the most important health issues for the people of our community?” and “What should we do to address them?” Members of the Health Council rely on data to guide their work. They consult experts, bring in innovative ideas from around the county, and sponsor coalitions to address complex problems. A good example of the way the Health Council works is its annual sponsorship of the Rural Scholars. This is a joint program with the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Nursing and Medicine. Every year select medical and graduate nursing students come to the Vineyard to study an important community health problem and develop recommendations for the community.
Before the pandemic altered all our lives, council members convened in person each month at 7:30 am, buoyed by the caffeine in their travel mugs and for the important public health topics at hand. Conversations that were timely and generative displaced heavy eyelids, encompassing a wide range of topics presented by both council members and guest speakers. Subjects
ranged from the Substance Use Coalition’s initiatives to provide easier access to therapeutic support, and the hospital’s strides to expand access to medical services, to the impact of climate change on community health, and creating stable housing for those facing homelessness.
Zoom has become the council’s new medium of exchange, but it hasn’t detracted from our mission of promoting community-wide health and wellness through a cooperative and integrated health care network. Although gaps in services still exist, they have narrowed, as the council continues to strive for new ways to improve the health of islanders. This includes sharing information with you, the reader, another important step in achieving our mission. With this inaugural column, we hope that you will engage with us, learning more about the things we do as we provide resources to inform and inspire you on your own paths to good health.
Dukes County Health Council meetings occur on the third Thursday of the month from 7:30 to 9 am. They are open to the public. Agendas are published on the Health Council’s website at dchcmv.com. Victoria Haeselbarth is an outreach worker at the Edgartown Council on Aging and former council member, who continues to serve on the health information subcommittee.