Tom Frieden, NACCHO Reflect on Public Health Successes and Partnerships for the Path Forward

Jul 11, 2013, 9:27 AM

“Public health will always be local. But we will always need to adapt and evolve to continue to be relevant and effective,” said Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the packed crowd of local health department leaders at the opening session of this year’s National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Annual Meeting. That means leveraging what’s working well, and keeping a finger on the pulse of what will work even better in the future, according to panelists at yesterday’s session, which was moderated by Dr. Swannie Jett, DrPH, MSc, Health Officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County and included presentations by a number of federal-level public health officials.

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Jett alluded to a rapid transformation in public health that will change what it means to ensure the health of a nation or a county.

“Public health needs to be at the forefront,” said Jett. “We need to take the lead in our communities. We need to reach out to community partners, and to health officers in other counties and states. We need to bring everyone into the fold in this conversation.”

These kinds of cross-cutting partnerships, with public health playing a central role, were also the subject of a recent op-ed by Frieden on the Huffington Post, sharing success stories from the 2013 Annual Status Report of the National Prevention Strategy. The Strategy envisions a prevention-oriented society where all sectors recognize the value of health for individuals, families, and society, working together to achieve better health for all Americans. Frieden shared some examples of efforts to create healthier places to live happening across the country:

  • Schools in almost every state and territory are using United States Department of Agriculture resources to buy more than $100 million in American-grown fresh produce.
  • Many schools, universities and businesses are getting healthier food and beverage options. The Status Report calls out the University of New Hampshire, which adopted wellness efforts affecting more than 16,000 students and faculty, including extension of a nutrition education program to faculty and staff.
  • Communities are making a commitment to becoming walkable, bikable, and public transit-friendly, including nearly 700,000 Broward County, Fla., residents who can now get their physical activity in as part of their daily lives on safer streets and new biking and walking paths.

Those qualitative successes are also supported by data showing real progress on some of the most critical health problems facing the country. In his keynote speech at NACCHO, Frieden shared the latest update on CDC’s Winnable Battles. There have been dramatic improvements in teen pregnancy, tobacco use, and motor vehicle injuries. In fact, adult smoking rates are at the lowest they’ve ever been, and declined 4.4 percent in just four years, which Frieden says may be fastest drop the country has seen so far. Progress has been more elusive on issues including healthcare-associated infections, nutrition, physical activity and obesity, and HIV.

Forging stronger opportunities for collaboration between health care and public health is one possible path towards progress in these intractable areas. No one in public health should think their their job of saving lives can be done in isolation from what hospitals, primary care physicians and other care providers do, said Frieden. One thing we know saves lives: having access to care. One study found that for every 176 people who are newly insured, one life is saved. How collaboration between public health and clinical care will play out will be the subject of several other sessions at this year’s NACCHO Meeting.

There’s great potential for this transformation in public health that will include new and innovative partnerships, and the presentations all reflected a feeling of optimism for what’s to come.

“With the many years of knowledge in this room, together we can reduce the number of years of life lost,” said Jett.

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