Faces of Public Health: Nicholas Mukhtar, Healthy Detroit

Sep 5, 2014, 11:39 AM

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Last June, the Washington Post held a live event, Health Beyond Health Care, which brought together doctors, bankers, architects, teachers and others to focus on health beyond the doctor’s office. The goal of the Washington, D.C., event—which was co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation others—was to showcase examples of communities working with partners to create cultures of health.

Healthy Detroit is a shining example. The project is a 501(c)(3) public health organization dedicated to building a culture of healthy, active living in the city of Detroit. It was formed less than a year ago in response to the U.S. Surgeon General’s National Prevention Strategy (NPS.) The NPS offers guidance on choosing the most effective and actionable methods of improving health and well-being, and envisions a prevention-oriented society where all sectors recognize the value of health.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Nicholas Mukhtar, founder and CEO of Healthy Detroit.

NewPublicHealth: How did Healthy Detroit get its start?

Nicholas Mukhtar: I was just about to the MPH part of a joint MPH/MD degree and had  always wanted to be a surgeon. But as I started living in the city and getting more involved in the community, I really saw a different side of health care, and to me it just became more rewarding to focus on the systemic issues in the health care system, more so than treating people once they already got sick. I’ve now finished the MPH part of my degree, and am starting on my MD degree.

So I started sending out a number of emails to different people and reached out to Dr. Regina Benjamin, then the U.S. Surgeon General, as well as local individuals. And then we established our mission, which was really to build a culture of prevention in the city while implementing the National Prevention Strategy. 

NPH: Where does your funding come from?

Mukhtar: We have a lot of local partners. We’ve applied for a few federal and foundation grants and we’re waiting to hear back, but for now most of the funding comes from private sponsors and donation.

NPH: What are you proudest of so far?

Mukhtar: Bringing together people that for the last few decades have not worked together. Without a doubt, we have one of the most racially tense and segregated cities in the entire country, including the divide between the suburbs and the city, and now even between the downtown and midtown areas in the neighborhoods. We’ve been bringing together community organizations that have been doing great work in the neighborhoods for decades with larger health systems that are based outside the city and have felt left out of these conversations for a long time.

NPH: How are you creating a culture of health in Detroit?

Mukhtar: Our vision and our philosophy is that really the health care system should be expanded to encompass the places that people go every day and that includes parks, churches and schools. And, of course, it’s going to be different city to city—and even within a city, neighborhood to neighborhood. But for us the big thing is this concept that we created called “health parks,” which are really just taking parks and recreation centers and trying to turn them into community hubs of health that are one-stop shops for everything you need to be healthy—everything from a farmer’s market, to an urban garden, to all your typical park amenities, to an outdoor fitness center, an indoor fitness center and programming to go along with it.

We’ve built a collaboration of 40-plus different organizations that are offering a lot of these services in a park setting that normally wouldn’t be in a park setting. The idea is to get life in the neighborhoods of Detroit to revolve around these health parks, and to us that’s really how you instill this culture of health in a more natural way than saying do this or this. So, for us it’s just looking at where people are and what people are doing and making it easy for people to just be healthy in their everyday lives.

We’re working in three parks and recreation centers right now, and we have three health parks in different areas of the city. The public-private partnership that we formed with the city and the recreation department have just been incredibly supportive and it’s a testament to the mission that everyone in the city wants this and understands the importance of it.

NPH: Who are your partners?

Mukhtar: Our approach is that we partner with absolutely everyone and don’t take no for an answer because we really do believe it needs an interdisciplinary approach—which, again, is what the National Prevention Strategy is all about. Our main partner is the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority and we’ve also reached out to the health systems, insurance companies and a lot of the community-based organizations.

NPH: How are you sharing your work?

Mukhtar: Regionally we have something called the Wayne County Population Health Council, which is a collaboration of a number of organizations. Nationally, we were featured in the annual status report of the National Prevention Strategy that is delivered to the president and Congress. As a new organization we’re still trying to do things locally before we try to project ourselves out throughout the country. We have a huge following on social media. I think that’s how most people learn about us and reach out to us. 

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