“There is a real opportunity to rethink how we view public spaces in this country and how they can be utilized to change the landscape of America’s health and wellbeing. Namely, through the transformation of airports into health hubs”
Public spaces often serve as centralized gathering places and provide a snapshot of our society. Airports, for example, attract a wide range of diverse people and serve as a touchpoint for many travelers. I often travel for business, and with that spend a lot of time at airports. While waiting for my flights, I can’t help but think about how many people can be reached through a public space like an airport. There is untapped potential for the opportunity to reimagine our national airports and how they could make a significant difference in key health issues and outcomes that we are facing as a country today.
An unhealthy America
As a business and strategy consultant focused on the health and care continuum, I’m always thinking about new ways to make an impact. However, the gravity of our situation, as a country, is both a concern and a grim reality.
Since 1988, the U.S. has consistently had the lowest life expectancy and highest avoidable mortality rates compared to other developed countries and the gap is only widening. While having the highest number of overweight and obese people in the world is undoubtedly a contributing factor, we also see the most reported daily pain compared to similarly wealthy countries, giving way to a large number of physical health issues that need to be addressed. With a comparatively high annual suicide rate, another sub-issue contributing to the U.S.’s avoidable mortality rate also points to the need for attention on mental health resources.
To improve our situation, part of the work that needs to be done involves social determinants of health (SDOH). SDOH includes a wide range of economic and social conditions that influence health outcomes. An aspect of SDOH begs the question, how do we make healthcare services and education more easily accessible to a larger portion of the population? Due to the high volume of daily traffic, the evident need for healthcare availability in air travel, and the example that other countries have provided, airports are a natural place to begin this work.
The history of medical services in airports
Studies regarding the need for medical services at airports date back to the 1960s, including the “Medical Services At Airports” study by Homer L. Reighard M.D. By the 1990s, almost all large airports adopted ambulances, paramedics, and life-sustaining equipment but no further access to comprehensive medical care. By 2014, a handful of the busiest U.S. airports partnered with local hospitals and medical groups to open clinics in their airports aimed at providing travelers and employees access to basic healthcare ranging from urgent care, pharmacies, immunizations, screenings, over-the-counter medications, and, in a couple of cases, physical or occupational therapy. However, the growth, popularity and capabilities of these airport clinics became stagnant until 2020 when the spread of COVID-19 pushed administrators to offer rapid testing as well. The need for health services in airports, as well as the ability to house medical operations, has been evident for years, yet the idea remains in its infancy. Undeveloped, the offering of healthcare at airports has failed to extend to address concerns for our country today.
American Health + Travel Today
As airport travel begins to pick back up, passengers are predicted to surpass pre-pandemic numbers this summer and many have expressed concern about maintaining airport safety and health. Today, ongoing conversations around health remain rooted in reactive healthcare largely related to the pandemic. Moving beyond methods of sanitation, airports are a natural place to transform into a health hub. With over 2.9 million passengers flying in and out of U.S. airports every day, there is plenty of untapped potential to appeal to health-conscious Americans at airports and the various challenges and conditions they face. Outlined below are a few of the most prevalent (and heavily impacted by air travel):
- Approximately 12 million people aged 40 and over in the U.S. have vision impairment (CDC), including the age group that travels by air most frequently, Baby Boomers (The Wandering RV)
- Over 300 million physical therapy sessions take place each year. Those in P.T. for injuries are not only at risk in airports due to the physical stress of carrying and lifting luggage, long airport lines and walks and needing to sit in the same position for the duration of the flight but multiple studies show air travel increases injury risk
- Despite 1 out of every 3 U.S. adults being obese (Harvard) and more than 130 million adults living with prediabetes or diabetes in the U.S. (CDC), fast food remains the most widely available and accessible food option in airports
- Air travel can spark mood changes, depression, anxiety, uncharacteristic behaviors or worsen symptoms in people with existing mental illness (CDC)
In addition to concerns about specific conditions exacerbated by air travel, to prosper as a country, there’s a need to enhance health education and eliminate obstacles that are limiting access to preventative care. Though not exhaustive, here are some key issues offering healthcare in a public space like airports could help solve:
- Our healthcare system can be difficult to navigate, and oftentimes consumers question where to go to get answers to the specific health questions that matter most to them
- Surveys show that lifesaving screenings are commonly misunderstood and disregarded as being ‘elective’
- Recent events such as the pandemic and declining economic factors make it more appealing to opt to stay at home rather than seek care
Taking all of these factors into consideration, there’s immense value in developing new ways to meet people where they are to provide both health education and care.
With elaborate displays, dining, lounges and shopping, airports are already moving beyond merely providing travel to offer an elevated consumer experience. However; the valuable real estate and social settings of airports have yet to be used constructively to benefit our society. Imagine if airport services could be expanded to address a plethora of health and wellness issues. Instead of sitting idly or shopping while waiting for a flight, passengers could spend that valuable time accessing a wide range of care in a convenient and accessible setting. To empower citizens with the tools needed to take charge of their health, the expansion could even offer healthcare education to advance understanding and knowledge of medical needs and care. The possibilities are truly endless:
- Have a skin mark you’re concerned about but haven’t had time to get looked at?
- Overdue for a teeth cleaning?
- Lost your glasses and aren’t able to reach your regular optometrist?
- Need to get your annual flu shot?
- Family history of diabetes, heart disease or breast cancer and haven’t been screened yet?
- Feeling strained from travel while recovering from surgery or injury and need help from a physical therapist?
- Have heart palpitations?
- Experiencing chronic pain?
- Have anxiety about your upcoming trip and need to meet with a therapist?
What if all of these circumstances and more could be solved while you’re waiting for your flight?
Looking at airports abroad, the top 3 healthiest airports in the world all feature spas, gyms, indoor tracks, meditation, quiet spaces, relaxation zones, outdoor or green spaces, yoga studios, and even fitness classes. Not only could we adopt these practices and seek to offer healthier food options, but we could take the concept a step further with a broad spectrum of healthcare services that would begin to impact the leading issues facing our country. Thus, paving the way for a new standard of health for Americans everywhere.
Not only would the concept of turning our national airports into health hubs be a starting point to improve the health of Americans, but it would also extend the purpose of health plans everywhere as they continue to bring more value to the population. Moving further into logistics, emerging advancements in healthcare technologies make this concept more attainable than ever before. The rise of telehealth, the safety and accessibility of patient information, as well as ease of consumer experience, open the door to seamless integration into airport infrastructure.
There is a real opportunity to rethink how we view public spaces in this country and how they can be utilized to change the landscape of America’s health and well-being. As one of the largest, most well-equipped public spaces for gathering in our country, our airports provide a means to manage social and behavioral norms as well as bridge a gap in accessibility to a wide range of health and care. By creating a national approach focused on the deliberate use of large airports as health hubs, we can transform them into places of healing and provide vital access to healthcare and education.
If you’re committed to the next generation of our country’s well-being, please reach out to me to join in this conversation and become a partner in transformation.
- Jeffrey Nemetz
About The Author/ Contributor
Throughout the course of his career, Jeffrey has supported boards and executive leadership teams for over 300 companies around the globe with an acute focus on the health and care continuum.
As the founder and lead partner at Transform Partners healthcare consulting, the past 20 years have been dedicated to helping businesses transform and drive growth by making the most of their assets in a constantly evolving, digitally connected world where customer expectations are increasingly dynamic.
To learn more about Transform Partners, follow the link: https://transformpartners.health/home
Cited in text:
American Medical Association | Orlando Sentinel | Weatherby Healthcare | Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) – O’Hare & Midway International Airports | WTTW/Chicago PBS | AAAE | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | The Wandering RV | Beresford Research | American Hospital Association | Joanna Whitehead | MarketWatch | CITYMD | American Heart Association | National Cancer Institute (NCI) | Netflights
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