Who Will Heal the Bronx?

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A young patient gets her temperature taken in the pediatrics department at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, NY.

Try to hold these conflicting ideas in your head, because they are both true: The Bronx is thriving. The Bronx is ailing.

For decades, the Bronx was most famous for burning. But now, it's turning around: The population and economy are both growing, gentrification is tiptoeing in. People of all ethnicities come to the Bronx and then discover that it's artistic, affordable and sexy, in a badass kind of way. The architecture is lovely, the waterfront developing. It's a borough on the rise.

And yet, not all of its people are rising, at least not compared to the rest of the city. And, for that matter, not compared to the rest of the state.

Let's start with the facts:

• The Bronx has the worst health outcomes in New York State.

• If you live in the South Bronx, you are eight times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes than if you live on the Upper East Side.

• Children are 2 to 3 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than in any other borough.

• 30 percent of the Bronx is obese.

People in the Bronx are too unhealthy. And yet, the healthcare industry is the number one employer in the borough. 

There's something wrong with that picture.

Historically, the Bronx didn't have good access to healthcare, but now it does. In fact, it has good networks (if you have insurance, but often, even if you don't) with dozens of clinics and 15 hospitals. So what went wrong? Why does the Bronx have both good healthcare and poor health?

WNYC decided to find out. 

After months of investigation, WNYC reporter Amanda Aronczyk discovered that the answer is simple — and incredibly difficult. Housing is the problem. Unemployment is the problem. Education is the problem. Poverty is the problem. If you don't have stable housing or you're hungry, then chances are you can't deal with your medical problems in a reliable way. 

It's not enough to be able to see a doctor. You also need to be able to buy fresh vegetables and live somewhere that is safe and where people care about you. You need to know not only what, exactly, you need to do to take care of your health, but also have the infrastructure to be able to do it.

And if your health has more to do with what happens outside hospital walls than inside, that requires enormous change. 

In this series, you will hear stories on WNYC (and WNYC.org) about organizations and activists in the Bronx who are working on that change, from a high school that aims to turn young Bronx residents into nurses, to a place that offers the formerly homeless cheery housing complete with an event planner and social workers, to a hospital that is aiming to improve health one phone call at a time.

But the first story is about Lincoln Hospital which, in the bad-old-days of 1970, had rats in the emergency room. It was not the politicians who healed that hospital, nor a big corporation — it was the community, working with local doctors.

And perhaps that is what will heal the Bronx now: her own people, working together with the health organizations that have made the borough their home.

Prescription for the Bronx is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information at Sloan.org.