Building a Culture of Health in America

Jun 25, 2014, 1:56 PM


“What we mean by ‘building a Culture of Health’ is shifting the values—and the actions—of this country so that health becomes a part of everything we do,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of theRobert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), during her keynote address at Spotlight: Health. RWJF is a founding underwriter of the two-and-a-half day expansion of the annual Aspen Ideas Festival.

“With health, each one of us can make the most of life’s opportunities,” she said. “That’s why we at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have made building a Culture of Health our North Star—the central aim of everything we do.”

Portrait of Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF President and CEO

Lavizzo-Mourey explained that the Foundation brought the Culture of Health concept to the Festival because of this year’s theme of “Imagining 2024.”

“When it comes to building a Culture of Health, I believe a decade from now we will have a powerful story of how we resolved to no longer accept that our nation spends more than $2.7 trillion dollars on health care, and yet continues to lose $227 billion dollars in productivity each year because of poor health,” she said.

Lavizzo-Mourey told the audience—which included health thought leaders from around the country—that building a true Culture of Health means changing our current understanding of health and creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to lead a healthy life. She gave the example of the Metro system in Washington, D.C., where babies born in the region of the Red Line—which intersects some of the wealthiest counties in the country—can expect to live to be 84 years old. However, babies born just a few stops away will have lives that are up to seven years shorter.


According to Lavizzo-Mourey, there are multiple ideas being practiced around the country that contribute to the emerging Culture of Health,  including:

  • Helping patients with things such as housing and food assistance at every medical visit.
  • Changing the workplace culture to be a healthier one, including using stairs instead of elevators and holding standing or walking meetings.

She also enumerated several key ways that RWJF is working to build a sustainable Culture of Health, including committing $500 million toward reversing the U.S. childhood obesity epidemic; helping to ensure that everyone who is eligible for health care coverage knows about the benefits available to them; encouraging businesses to take the lead in investing in the wellbeing of the communities they serve; and addressing community violence.

“We won’t achieve a true Culture of Health if some Americans are faced with much greater barriers to health than others,” she said, noting that nearly one in five Americans live in neighborhoods with limited job opportunities, low-quality housing, pollution and unhealthy food options. “We have to make a seismic shift in the way we deal with health—and it has to come from the ground up. The point is these major shifts in our culture started out as ideas, so let’s make a Culture of Health our next national idea.”

Many communities are already finding new ways to create Cultures of Health:

  • A pastor in Hernando, Miss., banned fried chicken from church suppers and replaced the dish with healthy potlucks. The church also added a walking track around the building and a blood pressure monitor in the lobby.
  • The Playworks program provides safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to schools at recess and throughout the entire school day.

Communities are going to build the Culture of Health that serves them best, said Lavizzo-Mourey, pointing to the six communities that won the inaugural RWJF Culture of Health Prize last year. Later in the day, after her speech, RWJF announced its 2014 Culture of Health Prize winners: Brownsville, Texas; Buncombe County, N.C.; Durham County, N.C.; Spokane County, Wash.; Taos Pueblo, N.M.; and Williamson, W.V.

In the question-and-answer period following the keynote address, audience members offered ideas to promote a culture of health. They included a return to home economics classes; a community program in Durham, N.C., that links patients to specialty practices; and successful efforts by the Taos Pueblo Native American tribe to retain their cultural customs as they improve their community health.

“We have to learn how to bring in diverse groups so health becomes very personal to each group but at the same time allows us to be healthy,” said Lavizzo-Mourey.

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