Working Together to Improve Health: Risa Lavizzo-Mourey Q&A

    • October 28, 2012

This month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is celebrating its 40th anniversary of working to improve health and health care for all Americans. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey offered some insights from her experience as the Foundation's president and CEO into the types of collaboration and leadership that are becoming increasingly important to bringing about meaningful change.

What’s your favorite example of a project or initiative which is bringing organizations across sectors to improve people’s health?

For me, one great example of cross-sector collaboration that immediately comes to mind is how local leaders are using our County Health Rankings & Roadmaps to improve the health of everyone in their community. What’s big and different is that with the Rankings, they now have solid data and hard evidence to act on. Take Wyandotte County, Kansas, for example—which includes Kansas City. They were shocked when the Rankings came out and they were the least healthy of all the state’s 105 counties. Access to care, smoking, obesity, even air quality was considered. The data also identified high levels of violent crime and unemployment. Neighborhoods were deteriorating. A high percentage of families and children were living below the poverty line. 

When Mayor Joe Reardon saw how badly his county was doing, he reached out to other county officials, business leaders, advocacy groups, educators, and others.  They set up a steering committee to push for action in key areas. Improving early childhood education was a priority. Also, improving what they call the “healthy environmental infrastructure” and widening access to healthy food and health services.  My favorite anecdote: the low-income Prescott neighborhood got its first new grocery store in 35 years. No longer does anyone have to go all the way across town to find fresh produce for their family. This is a good-news story that’s still unfolding. 

Is there an area of opportunity or challenge our nation is facing where you see particular potential for such collaboration to make a difference?

This is our 40th anniversary, and we’ve been using this occasion to ask ourselves the same thing. Last summer we gathered several dozen national experts in health care, non-profits, government, academia and business to help us figure out what health and health care are going to look like 20, 30, even 40 years down the road—and our key words were “connection” and “collaboration.”

 Among a wide range of scenarios they envisioned, both negative and positive, their most hopeful was an America enlivened by “a culture of health” in which good health is an esteemed social value. Prevention and wellness are not only enthusiastically embraced, but promoted—and rewarded. I firmly believe this kind of a “social compact” of good health is within our reach, and one of our greatest opportunities is to harness the growing recognition we are seeing of the connection between healthier people and stronger communities—and to leverage that to create a bigger table, and a louder voice.

In your experience, what are some of the key ingredients that successful efforts have in common?

For me, at the top of the list are leaders who reach across their siloes, focusing instead on areas of shared value and potential to work together to bring about meaningful change. My experience working with leaders across the nation, on issues ranging from reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, to increasing the number of Americans with health insurance, to considering health in all policies, has convinced me that it is possible for “strange bedfellows” to come together to improve the lives of our people and our communities. 

Next on my list: Anticipate the future. The late Peter Drucker, who called himself a “social ecologist,” once said that “long-range planning does not deal with future decisions—but with the future of present decisions.” I think he was exactly right. When forward-thinking leaders really connect and collaborate, that goes a long way in helping us avoid the mistakes of the past, and creating a better future for all of us.