Building a healthier community: An Omaha case study

Building healthy communities is one element of a transformed healthcare system in the U.S.  Among other things, healthy communities help to reduce overall healthcare costs, decrease morbidity, increase the quality of life and the life span of every citizen.

A number of years ago the community that I live in, Omaha, Nebraska, undertook an effort to create a healthier community.  This effort spawned several groups including Activate Omaha, Live Well Omaha and Live Well Omaha Kids. These groups in partnership with other community organizations and businesses including the largest healthcare system and a major health insurance company have worked to raise the community’s awareness of the need to live a healthier lifestyle.

As this effort was going on the Douglas County Health Department using data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Systems (BRFSS) Selected Metropolitan/Micropolitan Risk Trends (SMART) project ranked Omaha as the 142nd healthiest city out of 182 studied cities.  The Health Department and community groups like Activate Omaha and Live Well Omaha Kids used this as a rallying cry.

These groups in concert encourage Omahans individually and collectively to live healthier lives as the basis for building a healthier community.  For example, Live Well Omaha Kids developed the 54321 campaign to teach the areas youth what a healthy lifestyle entailed.  The program encouraged kids to:

  • 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day
  • 4 servings of water a day
  • 3 servings of low-fat dairy a day
  • 2 or less hours of screen time a day
  • 1 or more hours of physical activity a day

This approach by Omaha is only one piece of the puzzle.  Certainly providing citizens with the information they need to live healthier lives is important and helps to build a healthier community it fails to address other factors which are also important such as access to healthcare services and the creation of strong public health infrastructure.

Healthier communities are essential if we are to create the healthcare system we all deserve.  Healthcare systems, public health departments and other civic organizations can and should be working to create healthier communities. This has been Omaha’s approach.  What is your community doing to become healthier?


Joel High is a healthcare consultant who works with healthcare organizations around the country to assist them in implementing Patient-centered care. He has an MDiv and an MBA. Joel is passionate about creating change in healthcare that impacts the patient experience and brings meaning back to the work of healthcare professionals. He lives in Omaha, NE.

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Posted in healthcare, Innovation, public health, Social Determinents of Health
  • miller7

    Joel – great post! Thanks for sharing this encouraging information on Nebraska. Not to be outdone, I think Colorado is doing some pretty innovative things to address health.

    We love our mountains. We play hard and often. We are outside more than we are inside (some of this is because of our over 300 sunny days a year). We bike to work, and have a community that supports riding. We like to move in general because the weather allows us the opportunity.

    While “activity” within the Colorado culture in and of itself is not the reason Colorado is less obese than other states, it does play a big role.

    I think there are other factors that contribute to Colorado being just a bit healthier (other states have these too, but it is the combination of the aforementioned culture AND these).

    1) Several large health foundations committed to seeing Colorado be the healthiest state in the country;

    2) An academic medical center committed to going outside the medical campus and into the community;

    3) Strong community organizations committed to health and healthcare; and,

    4) A plethora of farmer’s markets where folks can get locally grown, often organic, produce (and other stuff).

    While these are not “empirically validated” reasons why Colorado is less obese and healthy, it does contribute to a healthier culture. As some states look at legislation to curb the obesity growth and become healthier, Colorado looks west and considers what “14er” they are going to climb.

  • JoelHigh

    Ben, thanks for sharing some of the ways that Colorado and Coloradans are working to build a healthier community. This an important priority in transforming our healthcare system. If we can move people towards health and wellness and away from chronic illness and obesity then we can change the utilization of healthcare.