APHA President Sees Community Involvement as the Key to Health Equity

As APHA's 2011 Annual Meeting begins, the organization's new president talks about the critical role of community in health and his vision for the Association's future.

    • October 27, 2011

Finding a single topic that resonates with the more than 13,000 health experts who flock to each year's American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting is no small task. But APHA president Melvin Shipp, OD, MPH, DrPH, is confident that this year's theme—Healthy Communities Support Healthy Minds and Bodies—is at the heart of the work of the majority of the organization's members. "The issue of health equity is at the basis of everything we do here at APHA," Shipp says. "And right now, we are living in a time when there's an unjust distribution of environmental, economic, health and other resources that is having a negative impact on health and disparities at the community level."

A critical part of addressing these inequities, Shipp explains, is "making sure that communities understand these issues, have a sense of ownership, belonging and the support needed to organize efforts to address disparities and other health problems. I see it as a circle that begins with boots-on-the-ground involvement and flows to other parts of the health care infrastructure. This is the only way to improve and protect health."

To help APHA members work toward this goal, Shipp explains that the annual meeting's theme will be at the center of a range of sessions and continuing medical education courses that are an integral part of the 139th annual gathering. "At this year's conference, there are a variety of sessions provided because our members come from all areas of public health," he says. "We want to be sure that we give attendees the opportunity to learn about the aspects of the theme that fit their perspective and their particular work."

Taking a broad view of health, and the important connections between policy and the public's needs has been a focus of Shipp's work for many years. "I began my career as an optometrist, interested in pharmacy," he recalls. "But eventually, I found that a narrow field of study was less appealing to me as I developed an interest in public health. Becoming a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellow (1989-1990) allowed me to see the true impact of policy on health." As part of his ongoing support for the RWJF Health Policy Fellows program, Shipp will lead a panel on the program's ability to help public health professionals at this year's APHA meeting. "As a result of my participation in the program, I got my DrPH and began to focus on putting my ideas into practice."

Expansion and New Connections for APHA

In his work at APHA, translating those ideas into a vision for the future of the organization "means making things happen in a way that the organization engages a much larger group of people in our work," Shipp says.

"APHA has been around a very long time [125 years], but it is relatively small—only 30,000 members—compared to the number of people who are actively engaged in public health in some way or form. There are hundreds of thousands of people across the country who can play a part in community health, many who have unique roles to play. I want to extend APHA's reach to include a larger number of these people," he says.

"I would also like to change the way people think about health. Many people see it only as medical care. But if you wait around until people need medical care, until things are broken, we will face increasingly high health care costs. We need to reduce health problems through proactive prevention and make it possible for people to have healthier lifestyles. At the policy level, I'm also arguing for better use of the nation's resources so that we can get a bigger bang for our buck by protecting public health early in the lifespan."

As part of this effort, Shipp explains that at this year's annual meeting, there will be an ongoing discussion about expanding the organization's membership structure. "We are looking at new models to see how we can engage more people from the state-based APHA organizations [these are not a part of the national organization] in a meaningful way. We also hope to work with other like-minded non-government organizations—the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is an excellent example—who share many of our objectives."

"In my role as president, one of my most valuable activities is that I will be visiting several state affiliates to see how we can help them do more in their communities and forge close connections with the national organization," he added.

Going forward, Shipp says, "I realize this is a huge undertaking that we may not be able to achieve in one year, but I hope to see it occur in the not too distant future."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellows program provides the nation's most comprehensive fellowship experience at the nexus of health science, policy and politics in Washington, D.C. It is an outstanding opportunity for exceptional midcareer health professionals and behavioral and social scientists with an interest in health and health care policy. Fellows participate in the policy process at the federal level and use that leadership experience to improve health, health care, and health policy.

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