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Public Health’s ‘Moonshot’ – Part 2: A Local Context

context-matters

Courtesy of Inspector Insight

 

In the first post of this series, I briefly described healthcare system expenditures, as a percent of GDP, for the U.S. and a number of OECD member countries. When coupled with population health outcomes data, the amount spent per person on healthcare in the U.S. seems excessive and arguably wasteful. Individual health behaviors, genetics and a broad range of social and environmental factors account for 90% of an individual’s risk for premature death. Addressing the factors outside the healthcare system, through a reallocation of spending into social services such as employment programs and supportive housing, may play a key role in improving population health outcomes.

Social determinants of health are “the structural determinants and conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age”. As such, a contextual understanding of communities and their history is critical to tackling deep-seated social issues. Below, I focus on the community of Durham, North Carolina for place-based contextual understanding.

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is the nation’s largest philanthropic organization dedicated to improve health. RWJF’s focus, once solely on innovation in the healthcare system, has evolved to address the social and environmental factors as well in “building a culture of health.” Shifting the way society viewed health – from the absence of illness – was an integral part in this movement. It emphasized health as a resource for living fulfilling lives and collectively contributing to a competitive and thriving nation. It developed and strengthened relationships with key stakeholders and facilitated cross-sector collaboration. And it’s engaging leaders in communities.

In 2013, RWJF named six communities with its “Culture of Health Prize.” Distinct from its traditional grantmaking program, this prize awards $25,000 to communities for the work and successes they have already achieved. By shining a spotlight on a selected group of communities each year, RWJF is able to share lessons and first-hand knowledge with community leaders nationwide. Durham, North Carolina, was one of six communities selected for the Culture of Health Prize in 2014 for the work the Partnership for a Healthy Durham has done since 2004. The Partnership is just one example of community-engaged efforts to improve the lives of Durham residents. A few additional innovative models will be introduced in subsequent posts to illustrate social impact at the local level and offer ideas to accelerate their collective impact.

Durham

Approximately 250 miles southwest of our Nation’s capital, Durham is situated at the northernmost point of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, with Raleigh and Chapel Hill to its east and west, respectively. In its former life, the city was well-known for tobacco and textile production, but fast forward to 2017 and the “City of Medicine” is in a constant state of transformation. Durham was recently anointed as a destination for foodies, “The South’s Tastiest Town,” and boasts a vibrant and diverse culinary and social scene. A major factor in its Renaissance was a collective effort to attract entrepreneurs and catalyze innovation. Community and business leaders invested a significant amount of resources to revitalize downtown and its efforts appear to be paying off. Once described a “nascent startup scene” by Madrigal in the Atlantic, now exudes self-confidence with two Durham-based startups collecting back-to-back wins in 2014 and 2015 at Google Demo Day in Silicon Valley. The startup community has also made waves nationwide for its efforts to empower and nurture diversity; its epicenter, American Underground, a Google Tech Hub, houses 48.2% minority- or female-led companies thanks to initiatives like Code 2040 – a nonprofit organization that creates pathways to the technology industry for underrepresented minorities – and strong partnerships within the Research Triangle.

History

In the early 20th century, Durham had the most African American millionaires per capita than any other city in the U.S. Their success in finance and insurance was evident with a section of downtown named “Black Wall Street” (Forbes) and the city was also known as the “Capital of the Black Middle Class”. The Hayti District, an independent black community founded shortly after the Civil War, became a self-sufficient community and housed residents of all social class along with a variety of businesses, schools, library, hotel and a hospital. African Americans owned and operated over 200 businesses within the boundaries of the District. It flourished for decades through the 1940s until an urban renewal project in the 1950s tore through more than 200 acres in the heart of Hayti, displacing residents and businesses alike. The project was intended to ease commuting for suburban residents by realigning streets and construction of “the Durham Freeway”, NC-147.

Historically, urban regeneration or renewal served as a method for social reform in England to address substandard and unsanitary living conditions in rapidly growing industrialized cities. In the U.S., it came in the form of federal policies used to “reshape” American cities. The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 disbursed federal funding for cities to “acquire” areas identified as “slums” and were given to private developers to construct new housing. Additionally, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 allocated 90% of federal funding to states to construct new highways that connected to the larger Interstate System. Large urban cities including New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston undertook urban renewal projects like Durham in the 1950s. While urban renewal projects generated economic development and improved quality of life in those cities, the destruction of neighborhoods left former residents in dire situations.

Poverty

A slow decline in manufacturing of textile and tobacco in Durham in the 1950s resulted in rising unemployment among working-class black residents due to segregation and discrimination. Coupled with urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s and Civil Rights movements, the divide between whites and blacks grew. Sarah Willets of Indy Week describes an initial divide between affluent landowners and its workers even when the city was incorporated in 1869. An initial divide in opportunity which persists to this day.

“While some parts of Durham have single-digit and even less-than-1-percent poverty rates, in other neighborhoods, half the residents struggle to make ends meet.” — Sarah Willets, Indy Week

“We’ve always been taught the story of America is one of upward mobility. Durham very much embodies that. But some of the darker sides of the American story are here too.” — Justin Cook, Photographer, Slate Magazine

Photographer Justin Cook’s series, “Made in Durham” and various other pieces in the Indy illustrate what Willets captures in her story on Mayor Bell’s lasting dichotomous legacy – a thriving upward mobility amongst young professionals contrasted with historically African American neighborhoods that struggle with staggering rates of poverty and violence.

Alison Templeton, a research assistant at the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, released an update on urban poverty in Durham using current Census data in 2013. Templeton identified census tracts as “distressed” based on its performance compared to the state’s average on the following: per capita income, unemployment and poverty rates. 22% distressed census tracts in Durham County were identified in the report, which rose from 15% back in 2000. Other poverty-related statistics in Durham’s distressed tracts:

Poverty 46.7%
Child poverty 55.2%
Elderly poverty 25.6%
HS graduation 72.6%
Families led by Single Mothers 66.5%
Homeownership 27.6%

Poverty and the consequences of sustained poverty for individuals and communities significantly impact population health outcomes. Understanding historical context is a crucial first step in adequately addressing deep-seated social issues.

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Public Health’s ‘Moonshot’ – Part 1

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.

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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.