Feb 13 2014
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What Will It Really Take to Improve the Nation's Health?

“Building a culture of health means recognizing that while Americans’ economic, geographic, or social circumstances may differ, we all aspire to lead the best lives that we can,” wrote Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourrey, MD, MBA in her 2014 President’s Message, released earlier this week. Laying out the plans for achieving those goals, Lavizzo-Mourrey added: “for the Foundation, it also means informing the dialogue and building demand for health by pursuing new partnerships, creating new networks to build momentum, and standing on the shoulders of others also striving to make America a healthier nation.”

The Foundation’s wide-ranging plans to “inform the dialogue” included a plenary talk by Mark McClellan, co-chair of the RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America, and a former head of both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. McClellan spoke at the AcademyHealth National Health Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., last week — less than a month after the release of the Commission’s 2014 report.

“To become healthier and reduce the growth of public and private spending on medical care, we must create a seismic shift in how we approach health and the actions we take,” said McClellan, “As a country, we need to expand our focus to address how to stay healthy in the first place.”

McClellan told a very attentive audience that critical needed changes include:

  • Improve opportunities [for people] to make healthy decisions where we live, learn, work and play
  • Improve access to a good education, jobs and health care
  • Work across sectors, collaborating to improve the health of all Americans
  • Make investing in America’s youngest children a high priority
  • Fundamentally change how we revitalize neighborhoods, fully integrating health into community development
  • Adopt new health “vital signs” to assess non-medical indicators for health such as jobs, income, housing, transportation and access to healthy food.
  • Create incentives tied to reimbursement for health professionals and health care institutions to address non-medical factors that affect health.

McClellan cited two examples of organizations that are addressing issues beyond healthcare in order to improve health:

  • Health Leads, a national health care organization, enables physicians and other health professionals to systematically screen patients for food, heat, and other basic resources that patients need to be healthy and “prescribe” these resources for patients.
  • The Medical-Legal Partnership program removes legal barriers that impede health for low-income populations by integrating legal professionals into the care team. These volunteers intervene with landlords, social service agencies, and others to address health-harming conditions ranging from lack of utilities to bedbugs to mold in rental properties.

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Tags: Public policy, Community-based care, Prevention