A few months ago, I watched a documentary that presented a unique perspective on the world by attaching high-definition cameras onto the bodies of birds. As they swept across the sky, the familiar trappings of ground-level life—highways, neighborhoods, buildings, streams, mountains and oceans—looked completely different. Soil was bridged to sky. Near was bridged to far. From a bird’s-eye view, it was all part of a grander, connected whole.
This made me think about the new vision that we at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) have been working over the past year to refine. It calls for us, as a nation, to strive together to build a Culture of Health enabling all in our diverse society to lead healthier lives, now and for generations to come. What, I thought, is the bird’s-eye view of this? What does a Culture of Health look like on a grand scale? What new bridges must our Foundation help build to make a Culture of Health part of the grander whole of what it means to be an American?
This year’s President’s Message takes a closer look at our new vision—how we intend to help build a national movement to achieve it, and how building a Culture of Health will require us to think and work differently.
If those birds with cameras flew over America today, they would not see a flourishing Culture of Health. Instead, they would see a nation that has for too long mistakenly defined being healthy as simply not needing to seek health care. They would see a population whose health can be unduly and unequally influenced by income, education, ethnicity, and where a person lives. They would see a disjointed system of health care that does not systematically extend beyond the walls of medical offices to the places where people live, learn, work, and play.
Yet the birds would also see a nation dotted with points of promise. They’d see the growing number of communities planting the seeds of a Culture of Health, leading the way in demonstrating what is possible. They’d see bright spots such as post-Katrina New Orleans, where public officials, schools, businesses, and community members joined forces to create a recovery plan that included a focus on nutrition, physical fitness, and equal access to quality health care for everyone. The state of Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett signed a transportation bill that dedicates millions of dollars to bicycle and pedestrian projects, with an eye toward addressing obesity by making it easier to remain active. And Canton, Ohio, where community leaders, faith-based organizations, businesses, social workers, health care leaders, and residents of a struggling neighborhood called the “northeast quadrant” have worked together to revitalize the area with housing, health, employment, education, and security at top of mind.
Today most people consider good health and healthy living as activities that are consciously chosen, or something that only those who are already fit can fully achieve. But imagine a culture that empowers everyone to live the healthiest lives that they can, even when they are dealing with chronic illness or other constraints. Imagine a health care system that couples treatment with care, and considers the life needs of patients, families, and caregivers, inside and outside the clinic.
Seeing a Culture of Health from a bird’s-eye view means taking in the bigger picture of what defines health in America—how health will always be linked to health care, but also extends to work, family, and community life; how health equity is connected to opportunity; and how we, as a nation, must balance the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of treatment and prevention to provide our people with care of the highest possible value. It means focusing on the grander whole of what being healthy and staying healthy means. And it requires an understanding of a dynamic new world of Big Data, social networking, and creative innovation that is both cross-disciplinary and interprofessional.
We believe that striving toward a Culture of Health will help us realize our mission to improve health and health care for all Americans. Still, we know that building this vision of a Culture of Health will take time. It will take fortitude. It will take collaboration. And we certainly cannot do it alone. Nonetheless, we firmly believe the vision is within America’s reach, and we intend to use our Foundation’s influence and reputation to help our nation get there. To do that we must disrupt the status quo and catalyze a national movement that will:
- Cultivate a shared vision of a Culture of Health;
- Build demand for it among all Americans; and
- Discover and invest in solutions.
We see these actions as interdependent, each reinforcing and building upon the other to transform how our nation views and values health. As always, RWJF is committed to realizing this bold transformation through the pursuit of solutions that are evidence-based, measurable, and equitable. And we will keep pursuing the vision of a healthier America until it is achieved.