Sep 22 2011
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Healthy Chicago: A NewPublicHealth Q&A With Bechara Choucair

file Bechara Choucair, Chicago Department of Health

Just a month ago, the Chicago Department of Public Health created a new public health agenda, Healthy Chicago, with an eye toward goal-driven results. The health agenda identifies priorities and measurable targets that the city’s health leaders say are achievable by 2020. The agenda includes policy, programmatic, educational and public awareness strategies that can be measured and monitored. Yesterday, the city released the first progress update on their initiative. NewPublicHealth spoke with Chicago Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair, M.D., about Healthy Chicago.

NewPublicHealth: When did the thinking start on Healthy Chicago?

Dr. Choucair: We actually started back in 2010 thinking about how we focus our energy as a department. We had identified tobacco, obesity and breast cancer disparities in Chicago as key winnable battles for us to focus on, and we quickly realized that we needed to develop a more comprehensive, interconnected plan when we announced those winnable battles, and that’s how we started thinking about the comprehensive public health agenda.

NPH: What’s new, never done before?

Dr. Choucair: The way we look at Healthy Chicago is that it’s more than just a plan. It’s really more of a call to action, and this is the first time that we have a citywide plan that calls really for all Chicagoans, the education institutions, philanthropy, faith-based communities, the business community, neighborhood families, as well as individuals, to join us in transforming the health of the city. Although we are accountable for the goals in the plan, it’s just more than just the health department’s plan, and I think Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it very clearly: “when it comes to public health, no one is going to sit on the sideline."

I wanted to achieve four things out of releasing Healthy Chicago. One, I wanted to identify key public health priorities. Two, I wanted to set measureable targets that we’d like to achieve by 2020 on these priorities and make those targets public. Three, I wanted to identify sets of policies, interventions and health education strategies that help us get there and make those public to increase accountability. And then fourth is the piece that I’m most exciting about – finding meaningful ways to engage the different stakeholders in our communities to achieve the targets.

NPH: Did you look at the work of other cities in creating Healthy Chicago?

Dr. Choucair: Oh, absolutely. We’ve looked at a lot of other cities. And we looked at a lot practices across the United States and even globally to see what is most promising, and we looked at evidence-based practices in the literature to identify the policies, programs, as well as health education strategies that we wanted to implement in Chicago and took it all into consideration as we developed agenda. I would say healthy vending is a good example of something we took from other cities.

NPH: Is it too early to report out any success?

Dr. Choucair: Just by focusing our efforts and making those public we were able to bring in over $39 million of brand new public health funding for the city of Chicago last year – around obesity, tobacco, teen pregnancy preventions as well as HIV prevention.

NPH: What has the buy-in been like from partners?

Dr. Choucair: We’ve gotten great feedback so far from community partners. Walgreen’s, for example, recently started piloting a model that will help improve access to healthier food in our communities. They’ve been adding fresh fruits and vegetables to stores, and many are in food desert areas. Another partner has been the Sprague Foundation, which is a philanthropy organization here in Chicago who supported us in the launch of the agenda and now is assisting us in convening a group of local philanthropy leaders to focus on how we can move Healthy Chicago forward with the community. We made a point to invite a lot potential partners to the Healthy Chicago announcement. And since the mayor has been a great supporter of the agenda, we’ve been getting a lot of positive follow-up with many of those partners.

NPH: Are you actively seeking out additional funding for public health activities in Chicago?

Dr. Choucair: Absolutely. One of the positives about having a public health agenda is really a focus on these priorities. And when we identify funding opportunities we are very focused on making sure that we are competitive in applying for funds. The other element is by identifying these priorities we’ve already built in a network of stakeholders in the community ready to engage that makes us very competitive in applying for these funds.

And, if you look the priorities that we released, they are totally aligned with national priorities, including the Surgeon General’s National Prevention Strategy. So by aligning our priorities with national strategies, we’re focusing on what's important for our community as well as positioning our department more positively to be able to benefit from additional funding that might come to public health.

NPH: How will you be using metrics?

Dr. Choucair: We’ve made a commitment to the public that we will be updating the performance of our city on all of these indicators every year to make sure that we are increasing the level of accountability and transparency, and on top of that we are issuing monthly progress reports on the implementation of the more than 120 strategies that we will be implementing in Healthy Chicago – and those monthly reports as well as the annual reports will be open to the public. It’s the same report that I’m going to be sending to the mayor, and the same report that I’m going to be sharing with our Board of Health. It’s that same report that will be shared with public here in Chicago and anywhere in the world. [Read the very first monthly report on Healthy Chicago, published yesterday.]

And in the Healthy Chicago plan, we’ve identified a dashboard that includes 16 indicators that looks at how we’ve performed in the past and where we would like to be by 2020. If we make progress in the right direction on these indicators, what that will tell us is that our city is getting healthier. Many of these indicators are very aligned with the County Health Rankings. So we hope that reaching our goals as a city will have a significant impact on the County Health Rankings for Cook County. That’s a ranking we’re aiming to change.

Tags: County Health Rankings, Healthy communities, Prevention, Public Health Departments, Public health, Public health agencies, Public health law, Q&A