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Prevention Institute

Prevention Institute alert: April 10, 2014

... Public Health Week (and work) has all the resources it needs

Unless you have a public health degree, work for a public health organization or are a member of the American Public Health Association, you probably don’t have a clue that this week is National Public Health Week.

It will be a great day when everyone knows it's Public Health Week--and public health gets all the resources needed to keep our nation healthy. There are lots of reasons why public health work (and week) tend to be invisible. 

When public health does its job really well, we prevent a lot of bad stuff from happening in the first place. Car crashes avoided, cancer clusters dissipated, community violence diminished, cases of type-2 diabetes absent, asthma attacks that never happened and HIV that wasn’t transmitted. Here at Prevention Institute, we’re frequently asked how we prove that prevention is effective. How do you measure it if it never happened?

When most people think about public health, or learn there’s a week to honor it, they probably think about flu shots, childhood vaccinations, and treatment of STDs. But the mission of public health is far broader. Healthy communities and homes, safe neighborhoods, good parks, quality jobs, good schools, efficient public transportation, clean air, water and soil—all the things we want for our families—are the embodiment of public health in action. These are the things we strive for, and that far too many people do without.

Most of what public health does well, it does in partnership with others, which also can make it easy to overlook our work. We create safe places to walk and bike when we partner with transportation planners. We get community parks when we collaborate with partners that work to improve the environment and promote recreation. Healthy food access comes about when we engage with farmers, grocers, food service providers and far-sighted developers. But when the neighborhood becomes safe or the school food gets healthier, few people think about the role public health practitioners had in making it happen.

It’s frequently not until we’re sick or injured that we start asking how an illness or injury could have been prevented. And since, as a nation, we spend $2.8 trillion a year on health care—the vast majority for conditions that can be prevented—the real question is what can we all do to prevent needless suffering, avoidable injuries, preventable illnesses and runaway costs? That’s the ongoing agenda for prevention and public health advocates and we embrace the mission.

So even though few people have ever heard of National Public Health Week, we still think it’s a great time to recognize our accomplishments, applaud some colleagues and look forward to the work that lies ahead. Here are a few things—and people—we think are worth celebrating:

Heath reform is working. Some 9.5 million people have gained coverage and access to care as a result of the Affordable Care Act, and that number that is likely to rise. For the first time in years, the number of uninsured people in the U.S. has dropped substantially, from 20.5 percent to 15.8 percent. That means many more people now can get routine and preventive care before they need treatment on an emergency basis.

Real money is flowing to prevention. Even before people began enrolling in healthcare through government exchanges, the Affordable Care Act established the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a pot of money devoted to promoting prevention. The Fund is making investments that help communities across the country support farmers’ markets, create walking trails, reduce smoking, improve people’s access to healthy food and generally become healthier.

Chronic disease rates in some communities are starting to fall. Rates of diabetes and obesity, which have been rising for years, are beginning to level off and even decline in some communities, showing that efforts to improve access to healthy food and increase physical activity are working. In Chula Vista, California, the school district and county public health officials have worked together to get kids moving and eating right. As a result, the number of elementary schoolchildren who are overweight or obese has dropped 3.2 percent in the last two years, after reaching 40 percent in 2010.

Congratulations to Tony Iton: We are thrilled that Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president for healthy communities at The California Endowment, was awarded the 2014 Beverlee A. Myers Award for Excellence in Public Health. We’ve known and worked with Tony for many years, since his days as public health officer for Alameda County. There is no one more committed to identifying and addressing the environmental and social determinants of health and to bringing a commitment to equity and social justice to the work of public health.

And our gratitude to Senator Tom Harkin. Senator Harkin has been one of our nation’s strongest prevention champions, a tireless fighter for expanding access to health care and the principal legislative creator of the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Senator Harkin, we thank you and salute you for all you have done.

The landscape for prevention offers hope—but there’s a lot of work to do. The U.S. spends more on health care than any other country, by a long shot, yet ranks 35th in the world in average life expectancy (below Taiwan, Slovenia and Costa Rica). We should demand a lot more health from our health care dollars. National Public Health Week might not make the headlines but we still need to spread the word: Public health is precious. Prevention works. And the health of our nation depends on it.

Read A Time of Opportunity

Prevention Institute and Tony Iton, then director of public health for Alameda County, California, prepared this report for the Institute of Medicine's Roundtable on Health Disparities to identify policy solutions at the community, regional and state level to reduce inequities in health and safety.

Public Health for the 21st Century 

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, PI interviewed more than 50 public health and community leaders. Their thought-provoking comments helped us shape a coherent strategy for how public health can thrive in the 21st century. Read now. 

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