Abdul El-Sayed speaking on stageHealth supporters can use public policy to improve health in their communities, and partnerships can play a key role. This was one of the key messages of APHA’s recent Policy Action Institute.

The Feb. 12 event in Washington, D.C., included discussions on critical public health issues facing the nation, policies that work and advocacy efforts that can lead to positive change. 

“We can’t be afraid to get involved in politics,” Abdul El-Sayed, MD, DPhil, epidemiologist, author and former health director for the City of Detroit, said in the meeting’s opening keynote address. “Health is political.”

Whether overtly or indirectly, public health will be on the ballot this November, El-Sayed said, citing reproductive health, homelessness and nutrition as just a few of the many issues that will be affected by this year’s election outcomes.

Given America's overall declining life expectancy, deaths of despair and growing health inequities, the time is right for action, according to Steven Woolf, MD, MPH, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor. Woolf discussed his recent study that showed one-third of excess U.S. deaths since 2010 have occurred in just four states.

“We have to get serious about policies, and the impact state policy has on health is great,” Woolf said.

The day’s discussions, organized around the theme of “All Hands on Deck: Improving Community Health,” focused on social determinants of health, including access to care, education, economic opportunity, violence, discrimination and income inequality. Presenters shared real-life examples of partnerships that have worked to advance health in communities.

Shelley Hearne, Soma Saha and two men seated on stage“Health is the core of so many issues, so we need an evidence-based health-in-all-policies approach,” said panelist Shelley Hearne, DrPH, principal investigator for CityHealth. “We have to get to know our local, state and national policymakers. Those relationships matter.”

Coming to an understanding on issues as varied as firearms, climate change, access to care, reproductive health and health reform is not easy, presenters acknowledged. 

“But conflict is always easier when you have a relationship before the conflict,” said Rex Archer, MD, MPH, director of health for the Kansas City Health Department.

Archer discussed his Missouri department’s successful partnership with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Realizing that they could both benefit from promoting healthier behaviors for Kansas City residents, the health department and business organization worked together to reduce to tobacco exposure in the area. They have since gone on to work on other health issues together.

Bechara Choucair, MD, senior vice president and chief community health officer at Kaiser Permanente, shared lessons from the organization’s many partnerships and programs that address community health.

“Our current health system isn’t meeting the social needs of our people,” he said, noting that good health is not possible when people’s need for food, housing, transportation, safety, security, connection is not met. 

two women smiling in front of APHA logo backdropAddressing the upstream drivers of health and finding solutions that benefit all is a challenge, but “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, quoting civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Brown urged public health workers to “keep sounding the alarm on the things that policymakers don’t always think about.

“Tell your story, write op-eds, use social media, meet with elected officials,” Brown said. “You are our canary in the coal mine.”

APHA’s Policy Action Institute was offered in partnership with AcademyHealth and the de Beaumont Foundation. On-demand video from the institute will be available through APHA Live, the Association’s online event platform.

Photos from top: Abdul El-Sayed, MD, DPhil, speaking at the Policy Action Institute; Shelley Hearne, Somava Saha and Bechara Choucair; attendees smiling for the camera. Photos by Aaron Warnick, courtesy of The Nation's Health.