Advocates for cancer research and prevention efforts converged in Washington, D.C. last week for One Voice Against Cancer’s (OVAC) annual lobby day on Capitol Hill. OVAC, a collaboration of roughly 50 national non-profit organizations, delivered a unified message to Members of Congress on June 6 on the need for increased cancer-related appropriations. A point of discussion in my meetings with legislative staff was the President’s Budget Proposal for FY 2018, which featured budget cuts at both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and increases for the Department of Defense. Armed with OVAC “asks”, I decided to focus my meetings with legislative staff from Senators Burr and Tillis and Representative Butterfield on the economic impact in North Carolina if funding levels were reduced. North Carolina is home to three National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers, which are awarded over $2B in annual NIH funding and employs thousands of employees.
Our advocacy training included a presentation by Dr. Warren Kibbe from NCI on the state of NIH funding and a quick brief on the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Led by former Vice President Joe Biden, the initiative focused on concentrated and collective action to accelerate a decade’s worth of progress in preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer into a five-year time frame. The Cancer Moonshot has buy-in from academic, public and private sector partnerships. My immediate thought: why doesn’t public health have this type of dedicated initiative with annual federally-appropriated funds?
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health initiative is public health’s “moonshot”. Its Action Framework parallels the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in identifying focus areas and key performance metrics to measure progress. RWJF’s Culture of Health has achieved significant buy-in from a myriad of cross-sector stakeholders. The only distinction between the two initiatives, from my perspective, is dedicated federal support. Imagine the possibilities if public health’s “moonshot” received the same attention and resources as the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. A decade’s worth of progress in a 5-year timeline for the social determinants of health would really change the trajectory of the field of public health.
In the next few posts, I plan to take a deeper dive on exploring innovative ways to address the social determinants of health, specifically at the local level, in the city where I currently live – Durham, North Carolina.
Below, I offer background on the U.S.’s healthcare system to provide a larger context the many layers and contributors to an individual’s health outcomes.
Healthcare expenditures in the United States was approximately $3.2T, or $9,900 per capita, in 2015 which accounted for 17.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP). When compared to 12 other high-income member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. spent significantly more annually. According to the Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. spent roughly $3000 more than Switzerland, the runner-up in per capita spending, in 2013. As a result, it outspent the next highest spender, France, by 5.5% of GDP in 2013. But despite its additional spending, the U.S. underperforms on population health outcomes such as life expectancy and chronic disease prevalence when compared with other OECD countries. Additionally in its analysis, the Commonwealth Fund compared healthcare expenditures to those spent on social services – retirement, disability benefits, employment programs and supportive housing, among others – for 11 OECD countries. In this comparison, the U.S. spent the least on social services at 9% of GDP, with Canada and Australia spending 10% and 11% of GDP, respectively. France and Sweden spent the most on social services at 21% of GDP. This imbalance in spending, posit the authors, may contribute to the country’s poor health outcomes.
Policies to improve population health have historically focused on the healthcare system according to Kaiser Family Foundation’s Heiman and Artiga. The Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010, expanded access to healthcare services for millions of Americans. However, as the authors explain, research demonstrates that healthcare is a relatively weak health determinant. Individual health behaviors, genetics and a broad range of social and environmental factors account for 90% of an individual’s risk for premature death. Thus, addressing the factors outside of the healthcare system may play a key role in improving population health outcomes, and the value it generates could justify reallocation of current spending levels.
Social determinants of health are “the structural determinants and conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age”. Examples of social determinants of health include social economic status, educational attainment, the physical environment, employment and social support networks. Social determinants form the basic foundation for each individual and his/her life experience. It also sets a baseline for future health outcomes. For example, an individual who is unemployed for an extended period of time may become homeless, food insecure and have limited access to healthcare services. It’s reasonable to conclude that this individual may be at higher risk of premature death due to his/her life experience. Unfortunately people all over the world have lives filled with adversity and struggle. Social, economic and/or environmental disadvantage creates differences in health outcomes, also known as health disparities, in populations across the world. One goal of Healthy People 2020, a strategic 10-year plan to improve U.S. population health, is to achieve the highest level of health for all people. Health equity includes the elimination of health and healthcare disparities.
One population of interest are known as “high utilizers” or vulnerable patients with complex social, behavioral and health needs. According to Anderson, the top 5% of individual utilizers account for about 50% of overall healthcare expenditures. Programs that pair patient navigators, community health workers and behavioral health resources with identified “high utilizers” have been implemented recently with hopes of improving health outcomes and generating value. A thorough review and analysis of the results for impact and effectiveness in improving health and cutting costs for this subset of patients is a critical next step.