Champions for Health in the South

The stellar athletic performance of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is reason for pride, not only among the 14 member universities but throughout the region. Driven by a “can-do” spirit, competitive determination, and passionately loyal fans, the athletic teams are models of excellence and an inspiration for the nation.

Now, SEC members have an opportunity to direct those same assets towards a very different goal: transforming the health of the South. Champions for Health in the South goes on offense to confront challenges that have left the region among the sickest in the nation.

Every SEC school is located in a state whose health rankings are in the bottom one-third of all states – and eight of them rank among the lowest 20 percent. That’s according to America’s Health Rankings for 2015, an annual state-by-state report published by the United Health Foundation and the American Public Health Association.

The report is a rigorous, data-driven analysis of the many factors affecting the health of individuals and communities – measures include rates of obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol and drug use, immunizations, physical activity, preventable hospitalizations, infant mortality, premature death, educational attainment, violent crime, and more. The South performs poorly on most of them.

Similar findings come from a 2016 report from the Commonwealth Fund, which has documented stark mortality trends among middle-aged whites – again, with an especially severe regional impact. In seven southern states, there were 200 more deaths, per 100,000 people, than would have been expected based on long-term historical patterns. From 1999 to 2014, southern white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 were as likely -- and in some cases more likely -- to die from a broad range of health conditions (including heart disease, chronic liver disease, suicide and drug overdoses) as they were in the 20 preceding years.

In April, 2017, the Texas A&M University School of Public Health convened 25 thought leaders, content specialists, and academic deans and heads of departments and colleges within the Southeastern Conference for a conversation on how to improve health in the Southern US. The meeting, held at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center, began with an introduction by Jay Maddock, Dean of the Texas A&M University School of Public Health and conference host, and Ruth Katz, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine and Society Program. Jay began the first portion of the meeting with a presentation on the state of health in states where SEC universities reside that helped inform the day’s conversation. Ruth followed by moderating a panel of key thought leaders which sparked a lively interactive discussion. The afternoon sessions focused on brainstorming strategies and priorities, and the generation of ideas on how to move the agenda forward. The agenda was ambitious and the meeting generated a number of big ideas and recurring themes. The meeting presented an opportunity to harness ideas to help drive action and sustain momentum for the initiative.

Next steps will be to formalize a partnership with the Aspen Institute to design and execute a convening of stakeholders and thought leaders around the topics and ideas generated at this meeting.  The ultimate goal of the project is the development and implementation of an activation strategy that is unique and specific to the environment and culture of southern states and designed to improve health both within the SEC member institutions, and in the communities, states and regions they serve.  We appreciate the time and effort that our SEC colleagues are taking to improve health in the South and in their home institutions, and university leadership in the SEC who are supporting this endeavor. 


Warm Regards,

Dr. Jay Maddock, Dean, School of Public Health

Dr. J.O. Spengler, Head, Health Promotion Department