Opinion: Medical Students Support Ballot Measures
Propositions A and B are key to a healthier future
In our very first weeks as students at UT-Austin's Dell Medical School, we discussed chronic diseases and the environmental factors that contribute to them. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer are most often not the result of a single exposure like COVID-19, but rather the consequence of small, everyday factors, such as a lack of access to healthy foods, lack of sidewalks and parks, and even environmental pollutants like gas emissions. Our school challenges us to rethink health care, and the way we confront the slow march of chronic disease among our patients is ripe for rethinking. This is why, as medical students, we encourage you to vote this November to pass Propositions A and B, which will bring a mass transit system and improved sidewalks and urban trails to Austin.
According to the most recent Critical Health Indicators Report from Austin Public Health, eight of the top 10 leading causes of death in Travis County are chronic degenerative diseases. Unfortunately, too often the fight against these conditions is waged on the individual level. Doctors will encourage their patients to exercise more, even though both doctor and patient know that is easier said than done. We know how frustrating it is to be told, "Just do better on your own!" while the contours of the city and our daily lives stay the same and actively work against us. Let's take conversations about lifestyle changes out of the doctor's office and off the shoulders of individual people, and let's start talking about what we can do as a community to make these changes easier for the health of us all.
Last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a team from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published an analysis of 20 years of research on the effects of public transit on physical activity levels. Their study concluded that "new public transit options can substantially contribute to increasing low- to moderate-intensity exercise levels, which has the potential to improve health on a population scale." It is clear that public transit can be part of the solution for sedentary lifestyles. Moreover, a modern public transit system that connects the whole city reduces the need to drive our cars everywhere and will help us to emit less pollutants into the air. It has long been understood that air pollutants can severely damage lung health, but recent studies also point to the extensive effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health. For example, last year the American College of Chest Physicians published that "air pollution may also account for 19% of all cardiovascular deaths and 21% of all stroke deaths." So as a booming Austin keeps expanding, we need to be aware of what gridlocked traffic and its gas emissions could be doing to our health.
There will come a day when we all pack back into music venues Downtown, restaurants on South Congress, local churches, malls, and soon the new Austin FC stadium. It will feel strange at first, but will also be a big relief. When that day comes, trains and buses across the country will also fill up again, but only in cities where the community has made the investment and the choice. So let's set Austin on a path to be a healthier city! As medical students and future doctors there is only so much we can do to help our patients on an individual basis, but as a community we can make choices and investments together now to see the health benefits for all of us later. Propositions A and B can be part of the cure for chronic epidemics that were here before COVID-19 and will still be with us after unless we take action together.
Daniel R. Bamrick-Fernandez and Scott Spivey Provencio write on behalf of the Environmental Health Interest Group at UT-Austin’s Dell Medical School, a group of medical students interested in the intersection of environmental issues and public health.
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