Faces of Public Health: Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA

Nov 14, 2014, 2:38 PM

The American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting begins next week in New Orleans, the first return to the area for the 15,000-strong meeting since Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. This year’s theme is Healthography, or, as APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, recently said, “where you live matters.”

Earlier this week, Benjamin spoke with NewPublicHealth about key issues and presentations for this year’s meeting. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

NewPublicHealth: “Healthography”—what is it and why is important especially right now?

Georges Benjamin: We know for sure that place matters, and I think New Orleans is an excellent example of that truth. It’s a wonderful city, but certainly has had huge health challenges. In our annual America’s Health Rankings survey that we do with the United Health Foundation and Partnership for Prevention, Louisiana consistently ranks as one of the lowest states in the nation for health. When you also consider the environmental tragedies that the state had—two storms in short succession and then the Gulf oil spill—the challenges of place and health become especially clear.

So the concept of the geography in which you live and your health is taking center stage as we head to New Orleans. As just one example, our opening session speaker, Isabel Wilkerson, wrote the book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which deals with the great migration of Americans who moved from one place to another to try to achieve a better life.

NPH: What are some of the other highlights of this year’s meeting?

Benjamin: We’ve got the acting U.S. Surgeon General coming, Dr.Boris Lushniak, and he is going to talk a great deal about health and place. He’s an amazing speaker around the issues of place-based health, how we build our communities and things that we can do to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

In addition, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will be the keynote speaker for the closing session on Wednesday, where she will talk about the foundation’s new Culture of Health and how they are playing a leading role in building a future where every American has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible, regardless of where they live.

As RWJF clearly knows, when you design things, you get exactly what you design, and we’ve designed an environment and a culture around health that creates an unhealthy environment. So, if we redesign that culture to improve our health, we can make a big difference.

NPH: Why is building a Culture of Health so important?

Benjamin: Most people living in the United States are not as healthy as they can be, and so APHA believes that we need to build a movement to be the healthiest nation, and we think we can do that in a generation. So, this meeting is the first component of our new strategic direction which aligns very closely with RWJF’s strategic direction.

Our goal is for the United States to be number one and not be number 36 in terms of quality of our health. We think there’s an opportunity to do that through the kind of things that APHA does with education, policy development, legislative advocacy, and building grass roots and grass tops movements to get us there.

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