Chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes are among the most prevalent, costly and preventable of all health problems. To understand local opportunities for behavioral change, our public health department led a community health assessment, which was a critical starting point. However, a public health department alone cannot educate and influence the behavioral change needed to positively impact the health and wellness behavior of individuals, companies and organizations.

As the CEO of a dynamic and progressive medical system, I have both a personal and professional obligation to lead by example, which is why Eastside Medical Center has joined hands with our countywide park system to build both infrastructure and programming to encourage individuals in our community to live healthful lifestyles.

As someone who has spent her entire career in health care, I know that people can significantly reduce their risk for developing chronic disease by making simple lifestyle changes: eating healthfully, increasing activity and reducing stress. The inspiration that drove this initiative started when my dad was diagnosed with heart disease in his 50s. It wasn't long after that he underwent open-heart surgery.

In that moment, I took a step back and I thought, "This could happen to me." I re-evaluated my health, began walking every day in the parks that our county has to offer, and started making simple lifestyle changes. Although these lifestyle changes were for my personal health, I thought of ways our hospital system could make a difference to a critical mass of people or, better yet, my own community.

Promoting Personal Wellness

According to a 2013 report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Georgia ranked as the 20th most-obese state, with a 26 percent rate for adults in Gwinnett County. The 2013 Gwinnett County Health Department Community Health Assessment states, "Gwinnett's current obesity rate of 26 percent places a quarter of the adult population at higher risk for serious conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems and stroke."

I began looking at how hospitals were viewed by the community members it serves. What I found is that citizens do not want to think about a hospital until they need the services it provides. Hospitals weren't seen as a community change agent. I knew this perspective needed to be changed. That's when I met the director of our countywide park system; we decided to team up and motivate the community to engage in their personal wellness. We called it Live Healthy Gwinnett.

The Live Healthy Gwinnett initiative combines education, behavioral change and clinical expertise from Eastside Medical Center along with programming and activities offered by Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation. The four overall programmatic areas are be active, eat healthfully, get checked and be positive. This initiative allows individuals in the community to live to play and play to live. Live Healthy Gwinnett encourages the community to combat health issues by combining physical activities with education and counseling from professional physicians and staff.

Walking the Talk

I believe that Eastside Medical Center, as a founding partner of Live Healthy Gwinnett, can be the behavioral change leader for our county by setting an example. We can be successful by providing education to our community and inspiring people to become healthy. To encourage residents to invest in personal wellness and stay on track, we developed a clinical education program in the parks called Walk the Talk.

We believe physical activity routines will improve overall health of individuals and decrease their chances of developing chronic disease. Walk the Talk mixes health and wellness professionals from Eastside Medical Center with park users, who walk trails together while discussing diverse topics to improve health and become more active.

During May, we observed National Stroke Awareness Month by focusing all Walk the Talk encounters on decreasing an individual's risk of stroke. June's observance of Men's Health Month focused all walk topics on men's health awareness.

When we come together as a community, we make a larger impact on not only the public, but also each other and those around us. All programming, media relations and events align and promote the four key wellness areas of Live Healthy Gwinnett: be active, eat healthfully, get checked and be positive.

Strategic Partnering

Making individual lifestyle changes can bring results, but changing the health status of a community is a hard task to accomplish. My goal as a health care CEO is to improve the health of the community we serve. Over time, this improvement will be demonstrated in a positive change in our county's health metrics.

Change of this magnitude is a task larger than one health care system and one parks and recreation system can accomplish. My hope is that other companies and organizations will join us in this fight against chronic disease and work with us to improve the health of the citizens of our community. We invite companies and organizations that believe in our mission, vision and values to join our partnership.

Our mission is to promote positive change that encourages people to be active, eat healthfully, get checked and be positive. We have a vision to be Gwinnett County's inspiration to enjoy, explore and discover healthy lifestyles for generations to come. The values within our partnership include: promotion of healthful living principles, participation in regular physical activity, developing effective community partnerships, and bringing together diverse cultures and generations.

The business proposition of this initiative is simple: to position my health system and our clinical experts as leaders within our community through a highly visible and strategically programmed wellness strategy. We aspire to lead by example with strategic partners and to be the inspiration for others to make their own lifestyle changes. I feel a personal sense of responsibility as the leader of this institution, but our institution has a responsibility to make our community well. This initiative starts with me and will end with a healthier, active community.
 
Kim Ryan, M.S., M.B.A., F.A.C.H.E., is the CEO of Eastside Medical Center in Snellville, Ga.