National Public Health Week 2013: Q&A with Georges C. Benjamin

Apr 1, 2013, 8:58 AM

file Georges Benjamin, American Public Health Association

It’s that time of year when public health enthusiasts rejoice and remind the rest of the world why this field is so critical—this is National Public Health Week, a yearly observance since 1995. For 2013, the theme is "Public Health is ROI: Save Lives, Save Money." According to the American Public Health Association, (APHA), a key organizer of the yearly observance, this year’s theme was developed to highlight the value of prevention and the importance of well-supported public health systems in preventing disease, saving lives and curbing health care spending.

In honor of National Public Health Week, NewPublicHealth spoke with Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the APHA.

NewPublicHealth: Is this the first time that National Public Health Week has focused on the return on investment in public health?

Dr. Benjamin: I think it’s the first time we’ve done so directly. There’s no question that we have always talked about the value of public health and we’ve often talked about savings, but this is the first time we’ve really focused like a laser on that investment.

NPH: What reaction have you seen in states and local communities to this year’s theme?

Dr. Benjamin: I can tell you for a fact that there’s excitement around it. I’ve heard from lots of public health practitioners. And I was just at the Kentucky Public Health Association meeting and a lot of the side chatter was around public health and the investment and the need for us to continue to show that the interventions work and that there is value in doing so. Sometimes it saves money, sometimes it saves lives, and sometimes it saves both.

NPH: What is a strong example of a public health issue that gets a policymaker’s attention when you talk about the return on investment?

Dr. Benjamin: Childhood immunizations—every dollar invested saves almost ten dollars in direct health care costs. People understand that immunization prevents disease, but when you talk about the savings, a lot of people haven’t thought much about that.

NPH: Are local and state health department officials comfortable or even used to talking about cost? Is this a real opportunity for them to be able to show what the advantages are as well as money saved and the money needed?

Dr. Benjamin: Public health practitioners are very good at talking about the health benefit, but are often not aware of the numbers when talking about the benefits. But we have an enormous amount of evidence that what we do works and what we do saves lives and money, and during National Public Health Week and beyond, we’re going to raise the visibility and then try to make sure that every single public health person in the country has their “elevator speech” ready: the one to two minute pitch about the value to public health both in terms of saving lives and saving money.

NPH: This campaign seems like a good one for social media.

Dr. Benjamin: It does indeed. The benefit of social media is that these kinds of facts are ideal for a tweet because you can get a very impactful statement in just a few characters.

>>Follow the discussion around National Public Health Week on Twitter using the hashtag #NPHW. Dialogue will happen all week long, but experts will also be available for a Twitter chat using the hashtag #NPHWchat on Wednesday, April 3 between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. EST.

NPH: Not every public health intervention saves money. When it doesn’t how can you still emphasize the benefits?

Dr. Benjamin: I’ve always been of the belief that you get what you pay for and that nothing is free. You’re putting something into it, you’re going to get something out. We have so much information that shows that public health innovations at the very least bring you an enormous amount of new value. Sometimes that value is in terms of cost savings, sometimes that is in the value of lives saved, and sometimes we’re fortunate enough to get both.

NPH: What public health initiatives are particularly on your radar to showcase value during National Public Health Week?

Dr. Benjamin: We’ll continue to talk about the investment that we’re making through the Affordable Care Act in the Public Health and Prevention Fund and clearly, we’re using evidence to show that the investment is worth it. Groups like Trust for America’s Health and our own policy unit here at APHA have done a lot of work to show that Community Transformation Grants are beginning to yield results, and those have been funded specifically through the Prevention Fund. We’re beginning to see a range of activities around community activation, community engagement where communities are beginning to be much, much healthier, and we think that’s important, and so we’re hoping that that will continue to move the ball forward.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.