Public health efforts key to preventing disease

02/28/2013 11:27 AM

02/28/2013 11:28 AM

Far too often, discussions of health and wellness begin and end with a focus on health care. We talk about changes in health insurance, advances in health care technology and new patient care models.

Yet, for all the dynamic breakthroughs or shifts in funding streams in health care, one truth remains the same: No amount of caring for the sick or injured can equal the benefit of preventing health problems before they occur.

Leading the charge in the area of prevention is the field of public health. During the past 100 years, it has been public health efforts, rather than medical advances, that have been most successful in improving our quality of life and protecting our overall health. In the past century, advances in public health have saved more lives than all the drugs, surgeries and medical interventions combined.

It has been efforts in public health that have drastically reduced the chance contaminated foods will reach our grocery stores. Public health efforts have nearly eliminated what were once common waterborne illnesses. Public health awareness campaigns have led to public discourse on issues like tobacco use, drunk driving and making seatbelt wearing a standard and legally mandated practice.

But the need for a focus on prevention is as strong as ever.

Prevention is needed to combat our nation’s growing obesity epidemic. A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projected that by 2030, 62 percent of adult Kansans could be classified as obese.

Along those lines, a preventive focus is now being applied to the leading chronic diseases most affecting the people of Kansas, as well as our nation. To best illustrate the concept of how public health efforts hold the potential to positively impact chronic disease rates, it is important to understand what leading health officials are calling the “3/4/50 Principle.”

This principle simply means that three unhealthy behaviors — poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and tobacco use/exposure — are the primary contributing factors to the four leading chronic diseases, which are cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is these four diseases that account for approximately 50 percent of all deaths across America.

At the Kansas Health Foundation, we have set our sights on the “3” in this principle. As in recent years, in 2013 the foundation will dedicate its resources to initiatives that increase physical activity, improve nutrition and increase tobacco-free living among Kansans.

Our Healthy Communities Initiative now allows us to work with 20 communities throughout Kansas to promote policy, systems and environmental changes that support healthy eating and active living. Through the WorkWell Kansas initiative, we’re working with business leaders around the state to put in place policies focused on creating a healthier work environment. Similarly, we recently announced a new request for proposals to support publicly appointed food policy councils as they work to create local healthy food strategies and policies.

These initiatives, as well as many others, work in tandem with our nearly two decades-long effort to reduce tobacco use and exposure in Kansas. To that end, the foundation recently launched its latest public awareness campaign, “It’s Not Only Smokers Who Get Sick,” to reinforce the serious health dangers associated with secondhand smoke.

But we know we can’t do it alone. To truly have a focus on prevention in our society, we must recognize the importance of a strong public health sector and invest our resources accordingly. We can work to prevent health problems from occurring in the first place, or we can spend millions — and sometimes billions — treating illness once it occurs. As a community, as a state, and as a nation, the choice is ours to make.

Steve Coen is the President and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation

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