Jun 22 2012
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Paul Wallace: Public Health and Primary Care

Paul Wallace Paul Wallace, IOM report committee chair

Primary care and public health share a common goal but historically have functioned independently of each other. However, health experts say that better integration of the two disciplines could result in critical improvements in the health of individuals and communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to look at issues related to the integration of primary care and public health, and the resulting report was released earlier this year.

The recent report on integrating was so groundbreaking, that it has launched a number of discussions and publications on the issue, including a keynote panel at the recent 2012 Keeneland Conference, a first ever joint issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the American Journal of Public Health and a session on the report at next week’s AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting by the IOM report’s committee chair, Paul Wallace, MD. NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Wallace, Director of the Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research at the Lewin Group, about the committee’s critical finding and recommendations.

The IOM identifies a set of core principles common to successful integration efforts, such as involving the community in defining and addressing its needs. The principles provided in this report can serve as a roadmap to move the nation toward a more efficient health system.

NewPublicHealth: What were the key findings were in the report?

Dr. Wallace: There are many instances in which communities have figured out aspects of integration but, as we learn over and over again in health care, solutions often need to be locally adaptive, and that holds true in thinking about how integration takes place as well.

I think what was very helpful for us was recognizing that integration is really a continuum, sort of extending from either being disintegrated or, if you will, parallel play on one end up through quite formal partnerships or mergers on the other end. There are opportunities for creating better care and efficiencies along that continuum. For public health to be aware of what primary care is doing and for primary care to be deeply aware of what public health is doing would be a substantial element of progress.

NPH: Why is integration coming about now?

Dr. Wallace: It isn’t quite yet. Until about a hundred years ago health care was the province, almost exclusively, of the clinician-patient relationship. Previously, though, if you go back 150 years, in medical schools, there was really a sort of blending of what we now would think of as public health and what we think of as health care. But the Flexner Report back in the early 20th century re-configured how medical education took place, which changed the structure of medical schools, and public health wasn’t really part of that.

The other thing that happened was that public health was figuring out what it needed as an academic base, and that was about the time that the Rockefeller Foundation stepped up and started funding separate schools of public health. So really what happened is that the education and the academic foundation sort of diverged and they followed separate paths for most of the last century.

NPH: With stronger collaboration between public health and health care, what could be achieved?

Dr. Wallace: I think if you look at it from a patient-centered perspective, there would be rational and consistent availability and access to a whole range of services like healthy food and the ability to exercise, and it would be reinforced by our public policy. There would be a shared awareness of who are the people at greatest risk, perhaps related to data and information systems. There would be an alignment between messaging from public health agencies and what you would hear in your clinician’s office. And in the clinician’s office there would be recognition that it isn’t just about doing physical exams and prescribing pills, it’s also thinking about aspects of healthy living such as active living and healthy eating.

But I think that there really would just be a blending of the whole continuum, and I think that the other really important thing is that a lot of the emphasis would shift from fixing things through health care to more of a proactive context of prevention, and really primary prevention. It’s about not waiting until people have high cholesterol and heart attacks and then trying to treat them with lipid-lowering drugs, but thinking how you get ahead of this in public schools, in the workplace and in our communities.

NPH: Would money be saved with the appropriate integration?

Dr. Wallace: Another way to think about it would be—can we get more health for the dollars we’re spending? We certainly could make the system more efficient. There are a lot of issues of maldistribution, for instance, where we tend to over-treat certain people in certain ways, and as a consequence there are other folks who are poorly treated. The disparities discussion I think is a very rich one that’s right in the middle of this.

Over time, we might start to see spending migrate from very high-risk dollars on things that are very unlikely to work with expensive interventions, to more fundamental upstream interventions that will have dividends over many years.

NPH: Is it sufficient to just have primary care and public health at the table together to solve the massive problems that have been created?

Dr. Wallace: If you really want to create health on a community basis, you need public health and you need the health care delivery system, primary care, but almost all of the successful programs also have some third party. And that third party may be government, it may be schools, it may be a faith-based organizations. It gives you sort of a place to convene. Rather than having public health and primary in a tug of war over who is bigger and brighter and smarter, you realign that effort to think about how we can collectively engage to support this third party. That sort of triangulation I think is a really critical thing about trying to bring these mindsets and forces back together.

NPH: What are the next steps to the report’s findings?

Dr. Wallace: What was different about this report we feel is that it involved people who have a direct interest in this, who are motivated to actually do some things to try and support this. CDC and HRSA, who together commissioned the report, between them have a footprint that really extends into every community. They’re actively thinking together about a lot of things that we’ve suggested, but a lot of our suggestions reflected openness from them to where they want to go. CDC and HRSA are increasingly aware of what each other are doing, they actively cooperated in funding the study and they’re collaborating now in thinking about some funding models.

There are also workforce issues. There probably is a set of workers who are critical to this and they aren’t necessarily traditional health care roles, but they’re more like the community health worker who can help people with education. They’re in the community, they understand the culture, they understand the nuance and may be more effective at translating some of these messages.

NPH: What made it feasible to have a receptive audience for this report now?

Dr. Wallace: There is a growing understanding of what population health is, and in a sense that population health is bigger than either primary care or public health and it’s only going to get addressed if they do it collaboratively. The other really critical factor that makes things different now is the availability of data. That is just fundamentally changing people’s thinking. An example of that would be creating community-wide registries that can be used to recognize where there’s opportunity such as pockets of a city that have a very high incidence of asthma, and then being able to think about what are the community or public health-based interventions.

Data democratization is also creating new levels of transparency and accountability. There’s this growing recognition that you can now know what is going on, where before people always wondered or hypothesized.

Tags: AcademyHealth, Access to Health Care, Keeneland Conference, PHSSR, Partnerships, Public Health Departments