Building the Momentum for Public Health
Advances in public health play a critical role in extending the length, improving the quality and raising the productivity of human lives. However, as we look to the future, the gains of the past are crashing into seemingly intractable problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and mental illness. During the “Public Health: The Key to Prosperity” session at the Global Conference, panelists provided insight into novel ways to encourage, facilitate and build a community that fosters well-being in society at large.
Panelist Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, set the stage for the discussion. While many solutions and efforts have been proposed, she said, “the overarching problem is the lack of uptake of public health efforts.”
For example, most people do not eat healthy diets or do regular exercise—two pillars in the prevention of diseases and conditions such as obesity. “Fat children is now the normal, and they will grow into obese adults,” noted Winston Wong, medical director for community benefit at Kaiser Permanente.
Specific solutions that could greatly reverse this trend include widening access to better food and nutrition as well as dedicated recess in schools. And given the increasing interconnectedness among youth, Goldman noted that learning how social networks can encourage healthy behaviors, such as reduced smoking and greater interest in environmental responsibility, could help us understand how to motivate people to adopt such positive habits.
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On the subject of incentives, Harry Leider, chief medical officer and group vice president at Walgreens, said the company has piloted a program that rewards physical activity through its loyalty card. Points earned on the Balance Rewards card can be redeemed for savings in store purchases. Leider said Walgreens’ goal is to encourage healthier lifestyles for employees and customers alike. With a simplified interface, the Walgreens app and program now has 1 million participants and has demonstrated a 70 percent retention rate after the first year.
Mental health is another key area where public health improvements directly translate into increased quality of life and productivity—both crucial to creating prosperity. Leider said that mental health should be a corporate goal and that focusing only on obesity is not enough. “Having employees healthy of body and mind is good business,” he said.
Carmen Nevarez, vice president of external relations and preventive medicine advisor at the Public Health Institute, concurred, noting that a majority of health dollars are spent on treating preventable and chronic diseases such as obesity and mental health. “If we focus efforts in this space, it will translates into people who learn, work and play better, overall building a better community,” she said.
The panelists agreed that the importance of public health is often lost on the public itself or taken for granted. In part, this is because it takes years for public health efforts and investments to bear fruit. For example, 11 years passed after implementation of a tobacco tax in California before studies demonstrated the resulting drop in rates of lung cancer. Another reason is that relative to combatting communicable diseases—which usually have quicker results—efforts to address chronic problems like obesity and mental illness do not have such a rapid turnover rate and can appear to be a bad investment of resources. However, Goldman noted, the opposite is true: Long-term returns of public health investments result in immense public gains.
In closing, moderator Ryan Shadrick Wilson, chief strategy officer and general counsel for Partnership for a Healthier America, asked panelists to reflect on the Global Conference’s theme—the future of humankind—and to offer advice to the audience. Leider advocated the corporate benefits of encouraging better health and health care for employees. Nevarez suggested that everyone think of the one change they could make to benefit both themselves and their community. Wong urged a focus on populace health, as the next level of public health, by listening and responding to the needs of specific groups. And Goldman encouraged attendees to take civic or industry leadership roles and actively promote public health in their areas.