Community Resilience in the Eye of a Storm

Aug 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, officials from Harris County Public Health had to get creative. Here’s how they kept Houstonians healthy in the wake of the storm and what they learned in the process.

Graphic of boots.

One year ago, in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall and then refused to leave. Hovering over Harris County, Texas—home to Houston—it dumped 1 trillion gallons of water, the equivalent of 40 million swimming pools, on the county’s 1,778 square miles. One community saw 10 inches of rain in 90 minutes. Drainage systems—all systems for that matter—failed or were disrupted in unfathomable ways. Water was as high as streetlights in some places. Potentially poisonous chemicals and dangerous bacteria surged through residential areas. People were trapped by flooded roads. Homes and lives were destroyed.

Those 10 days—from August 25 when the storm made landfall until September 4 when the sun finally returned—were some of the most challenging of Umair A. Shah’s career. Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, is a physician, an emergency responder, and most importantly the executive director of Harris County Public Health (HCPH). HCPH is the county health department for the 3rd largest county in the nation serving 4.7 million people. He and his staff were in rapid response mode leading up to the storm, during the storm itself, and for several weeks in the recovery phase of the storm, often operating 24/7.

During a visit to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), I had the pleasure of discussing Harris County’s response with Dr. Shah. “My staff came every day to do their jobs,” he told me, “while they too wondered about their own homes or how their family members were faring. I am so amazed by their absolute dedication to the needs of our community despite it all.” Dr. Shah himself drove 2,200 miles in 10 days visiting neighborhoods that were heavily impacted from the storm.

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A Journey From Philanthropy to Public Health and Back Again

Aug 15, 2018, 11:45 AM, Posted by Joe Marx

Brian Castrucci traces his path to CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation back to a “life-changing” internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A sign in a community park.

Many of us have had those moments in life where the decisions we make alter the path our lives take. Brian Castrucci, the newly appointed CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, had one of those pivotal moments back when he had completed his first year of graduate study in public health.

At 24 years of age, Brian had a decision to make: return to school to complete his master’s degree in public health or accept a one-year internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). He chose RWJF, and, he says, “it’s made all the difference.”

“What would I have missed if I hadn’t done that internship?” Brian told me in a recent conversation. “Simple. How to think. How to dream. How to boldly take on a change that is needed even when you know it’s going to be really hard.”

He considers that year the base for much of his early career success. Not only did he learn to think strategically and tackle big problems, like youth tobacco and substance use, but he saw models of partnership, collaboration, and how people at the top of their game work together to advance the field and change lives. “I had a chance to interact with, and learn from, leaders who I had read about in class. It was like a public health fantasy camp.”

And then, just as he was considering a career in philanthropy, he was encouraged to walk through another door. As his internship was ending, Brian told RWJF Senior Scientist Tracy Orleans, one of his mentors, that he was interested in staying on at RWJF. She wisely noted that wasn’t the best idea for a young person with a spark of public health passion. If he was to be truly effective in philanthropy, she told him, he needed time in the trenches.

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To Improve Health Disparities, Focus on Oral Health

Aug 9, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Charles Moore

A team from our Clinical Scholars program believes that addressing oral health disparities can improve overall health and well-being, and help end cycles of poverty. They are bringing oral health to the community through school clinics, an app and an oral health protocol development for nurses, physicians, dentists and dental hygienists.

HEALing Community Center Atlanta

In January 2018, the Hollis Innovation Academy, a K-8 school, opened a dental exam room. Though it may seem unusual to see a dentist’s chair in a school, its presence reflects years of learning within this Atlanta community. Hollis's students live in English Avenue/Vine City, an area with one of the highest poverty rates in Atlanta. They also reside in one of three zip codes with the highest oral cancer rates in the city.

Early in my career as an ear, nose and throat specialist, I witnessed a deeply troubling pattern: on my first visit with a patient, I would diagnose him or her with advanced head and neck cancers. There would have been good treatment options if these patients had been seen much earlier. But time and time again, all we could do was rush the patient into an operating room, put in a tracheotomy to control the airway, and set up end-of-life care. I kept thinking that someone needed to get to this issue much sooner so that people wouldn’t die from something that could be treated effectively if caught sooner.

Eventually, I decided that person was me.

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Four Ways to Build Inclusive, Healthy Places for All

Jul 25, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Inclusive public spaces for all are a central part of healthy, resilient communities. A new framework can help ensure that processes for shaping these spaces lead to design decisions that promote equity.

Healthy Places Swing Set

It has been said that inspiration comes when you least expect it. My visit to Melbourne, Australia, inspired me to take an international look at place-making. I was standing in Federation Square, restlessly waiting for my daughter to finish her shift. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. I was wearing my mom hat, not my urban planner’s hat.

Nevertheless, as my eyes swept the Square, I had the sense of being in a very special place. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I was not surprised to later learn that Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne has been recognized as one of the best public squares in the world. Fed Square, built on top of a working railway, comprises sculpted and natural elements; it has small spaces like fire pits; and large and medium-size open spaces for planned and unplanned activity. There is a large TV screen that broadcasts international and national sporting events (it is not always on). The Square is open 24 hours a day; has free Wi-Fi for all; rest rooms; and no signs prohibiting activity or lingering. Restaurants open their doors to it; and transit lines and shops surround it.

I visited Fed Square daily for eight days, and what impressed me was how well it reflected Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity; how seamlessly it connected to the streets, buildings and facilities on its periphery; and how welcoming it always felt. It is a place for people—the well-heeled, the not-so lucky—and everyone in between. I should note, though, that Federation Square’s value as an open public space and cultural hub is currently being tested. Controversial changes to it are pushing forward sans public review and participation.

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Why We Must Turn Up the Heat on Tobacco Products

Jul 12, 2018, 2:00 PM, Posted by Matt Pierce

We’ve come a long way in reducing tobacco use, but we can save millions of lives and advance health equity by doing even more.

A discount tobacco and alcohol store in Nashville, TN.

Although smoking rates have dropped by more than half over the past 50-plus years, tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

And not everyone has benefited equally from reduced rates in smoking—there are deep disparities in tobacco use and quit rates, depending on where people live, how much money they make, and the color of their skin.

Tobacco products disproportionately harm people with lower incomes and less education; people with mental illness and substance use disorders; people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT); and racial and ethnic minorities.

What’s causing these inequities? Part of it is marketing. Tobacco control efforts have not focused on closing racial, ethnic and socio-economic gaps. In fact, we know that the tobacco industry targets certain populationswomen, people who are black or Latino, and members of the LGBT community—with higher levels of marketing, exposing them to more tobacco product ads.

In addition, people in many of these groups are less likely to have health insurance—and, as a result, less likely to have access to smoking cessation products and services.

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Practicing Cultural Humility to Transform Health Care

Jun 21, 2018, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer McGee-Avila

Moving beyond culture competency to cultural humility acknowledges patients’ authority over their own lived experience.

Jennifter McGee Avila, Yolanda Radovic Jennifer McGee-Avila (right) pictured with her mother, Yolanda Radovic.

Health care delivery often involves a one-size-fits-all approach. As clinicians, we treat a patient with a particular diagnosis similar to the last patient we saw with the same diagnosis because it’s efficient—we think. But shifting that mindset is one of the best opportunities we have to help people truly thrive. An individual’s lived experience is rich, diverse, and complicated. And what it takes for each individual to live his or her healthiest life possible is as unique as each person is. In other words, a patient’s full life experience should inform how we shape their treatment.

To achieve a deeper understanding of our patients, it is essential for providers to practice “cultural humility” and acknowledge the unique elements of every individual’s identity. Many of us may be familiar with cultural competency—being respectful and responsive to the health beliefs and practices—and cultural and linguistic needs—of diverse population groups.

But cultural humility goes even deeper. It requires you to step outside of yourself and be open to other people’s identities, in a way that acknowledges their authority over their own experiences.

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A Successful Model That Predicts and Prevents Violence

Jun 18, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by George Hobor, Laura Leviton

A surgeon in Cardiff, Wales, who regularly treated victims of violence, discovered that many cases went unreported. He devised a model for collecting data and collaborating with both law enforcement and community to predict and prevent violence. This approach is now taking root here in the United States.

Cardiff image

Weekend after weekend, the wave of emergency department (ED) patients would arrive. Oral and maxillofacial surgeon Jonathan Shepard would treat shattered jaws, knife wounds and other facial injuries at the hospital in Cardiff, Wales. These injuries stemmed from brawls in bars and nightclubs where broken glasses and bottles were wielded as weapons. Strangely, Dr. Shepard found that only 23 percent of these assaults treated in the hospital were reported to law enforcement.

Harnessing the Power of Data for Violence Prevention

Determined to find a way to stem the violence, Dr. Shepard mobilized health care providers, law enforcement heads, city officials and other local leaders in working together to address what was happening within their community.

Local hospitals agreed to gather basic anonymized information from each assault victim admitted to the emergency department, including the specific location of the violent incident, time of day, and weapon involved. They removed patient identifiers and shared the anonymous data with local law enforcement officials, who combined those data with their own records.

With these data, police were able to map when and where violence might happen, and concentrate resources on hotspot locations such as specific streets, businesses, schools, or transit stations, and during particular times of the week, to help prevent incidents.

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How Can We Help Kids and Families Eat Healthier?

Jun 6, 2018, 10:00 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel, Tina Kauh

A $2.6 million funding opportunity for researchers studying how to improve children’s development through healthy foods and beverages.

A mother and daughter sit together while enjoying watermelon.

When our kids were around 5 months old, we knew it was time to begin nourishing them with more than breastmilk or formula. But the thought of where or how to begin was overwhelming to us first-time moms. We also understand that establishing healthy eating patterns in early childhood sets a foundation for sound dietary habits later in life. This is why we are sharing a funding opportunity for researchers who can help us better understand what and how our kids should be eating.

We have firsthand knowledge of how crucial the right nutrition information is. Despite seeking tips from pediatricians, friends and countless books and websites, we had no idea what to feed our babies. In addition, while options at the supermarket were endless, there wasn’t enough clear, objective information to help us make an informed decision about what to choose and why. (Ironically, the dog food aisle offered a wealth of thorough guidance on how to keep a dog’s coat shiny and her bones strong.)

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Teaming up with Harvard to Bring Health to Business

May 23, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Marjorie Paloma

Beginning May 29th a free online course open to all, will feature leading faculty from Harvard’s business, medical and public health schools. The course, "Improving Your Business Through a Culture of Health," aims to help business leaders understand how to prioritize health.

Cross Collaboration

At RWJF, we know that business plays a key role in shaping American culture and scaling innovative ideas. Part of my job is to help business leaders understand the value of, and state the case for, improving health—not just for employees, but also the health of customers and the people who live in the community more broadly.

We recognize that businesses must deliver on ROI. They need to be focused on how they are doing with respect to returns, profits, customer relevancy, market share—that’s their job. So investing in health can be a hard sell to CEOs, shareholders, investors or boards of directors—but it’s well worth it. Here’s why:

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Dining Out Smarter With New Menu Labeling Rules

May 7, 2018, 12:00 AM, Posted by Jennifer Ng'andu

New menu labeling information will help families make healthier choices and may save billions of dollars in health care costs over the next 20 years.

A family reading a menu in a restaurant.

Do you remember the spring of 2011? The iPhone 4 was all the rage. Plenty of people were still figuring out what a Tweet was. We were learning from Beyoncé that girls run the world.  

Spring of 2011 was also when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first proposed national menu labeling rules. These rules would require that chain restaurants and other food retailers provide calorie counts and other nutrition information to their customers.

Today, seven years later, those rules finally take effect. This important milestone will make it significantly easier for parents and families to make healthier choices when eating out. The potential benefits to our nation’s health and economic well-being are substantial.

How did we get here? Why is this a big deal? And what’s the connection to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) Culture of Health vision?

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