Beyond Seat Belts and Bike Helmets: Policies that Improve Lives

Jan 27, 2016, 9:13 AM, Posted by

RWJF announces up to $1.5 million in new funding to create the evidence base needed for a new generation of policies that improve health, well-being and equity.

Needed: Research to inform laws and policies that elevate community health and equity.

Some of us remember the bad old days when nobody wore seat belts and babies bounced on their mothers’ laps in the front seats of cars. For others, it’s the stuff of legend. Since the advent of seat belt laws in the late 1980’s, the proportion of people buckling up has skyrocketed from fewer than 15 percent to over 90 percent in many states. The laws required people to change their behavior initially and continuously until buckling up was a habit of mind and a social norm. Accordingly, the number of deaths and serious injuries from car accidents has plummeted by more than half.  Other policies—including minimum wage laws, zoning and urban planning, or childcare regulations and guidelines—have had large effects on improving population health.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we have witnessed firsthand the impact that policies and laws can have in improving health. With this in mind, RWJF is launching Policies for Action (P4A). This new initiative provides up to $1.5 million in funding (or $250K in individual grants up to two years) for research efforts that identify policies, laws and regulations in the public and private sectors that support building a Culture of Health. Our focus is intentionally wide-ranging. We recognize that policies developed both within health and prevention sectors and beyond—in education, economics, transportation, justice, and housing, for example—can ultimately affect the ability of all Americans to lead healthy lives.

The goal is to build an evidence base that provides legislators and policymakers as well as public agencies, advocates and other stakeholders with the data and information they need to formulate laws, regulations and policies to improve health, wellbeing and equity.

As the name implies, the focus of P4A is on action. We are interested in research that involves innovative collaborations between and across agencies, sectors and communities and is led by principal investigators from areas as diverse as urban planning, workforce development, transit departments, finance and commercial development. The P4A project uses the “health in all policies” strategy as its guide—supporting research that takes into account the health impact of policies originating in a variety of sectors.

How broad are we thinking? We welcome any area of research that aligns with Policies for Action’s objectives, but particular considerations will be given to research on actional policies that:

  • Focus on early childhood, or have lifelong, even multigenerational, benefits.
  • Are preventive rather than remedial.
  • Advance a community’s own priorities. For instance, researchers looking at government and community policy initiatives might explore both health outcomes and the business case for these efforts.
  • Highlight collaboration between the public and private sectors, or innovations within the private sector. For instance, architecture and urban planning researchers might explore themes of active design; those in the technology field may explore disruptive innovation within the context of health; and planning researchers might explore research around physical planning.
  • Address people or places or systems that have been traditionally underserved or unattended. Researchers might explore neighborhoods without good schools or isolated from public transportation.
  • Foster stability and continuity at neighborhood, community, state or federal levels. For example, an economics research project might explore how mortgage lending policies lead to homeownership patterns that affect health.
  • Transform or bridge major service systems, such as between health care and public health systems, or other systems that influence health in communities, such as social services or education.
  • Influence values and beliefs integral to a Culture of Health.

The P4A initiative is being coordinated out of Temple University’s Center for Health Law, Policy and Practice in collaboration with three “research hubs”—at New York University (NYU), the University of Michigan and the Urban Institute. The hubs provide strategic support for the program and its grantees. The hubs bring expertise and experience in conducting research within specific issue areas, such as housing, transportation and financing, that matters at the local, state, and national policy levels.

At NYU, for example, one project involves linking data from the New York City Housing Authority with Medicaid data to determine if people who live in newly renovated public housing had better health outcomes relative to those whose housing remained in poor condition. Investigators at the Urban Institute, meanwhile, are examining how policies governing mental health services vary in states that have expanded their Medicaid programs, and which ones appear to promote better access to those services. The University of Michigan studies Pay-for-Success and other  initiatives that offer alternative financing and sustainability models. Learn more about the ongoing research at the hubs.

Innovative policy and laws have long driven major gains in public health. The evidence is undisputable: e.g. seatbelts save lives; tobacco restrictions cut smoking rates; helmets prevent brain injuries. As we begin tackling more complex social determinants of health that include poverty, racial segregation, educational disparities and other inequities, we will need a robust evidence base to inform a more nuanced policy landscape.

The Policy for Action initiative offers an opportunity for researchers to help build this new evidence base and to highlight the health implications of policies, laws and regulations in such diverse areas as the built environment, workforce issues, public transportation, finance and more. We are eager to hear your ideas.

I hope you will join us to create better policies that help build a Culture of Health.

Headshot of Alonzo Plough

Alonzo L. Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Follow @alonzoplough on Twitter.