By Sharon Ricks, Acting Regional Health Administrator, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Region IV
There is a place in America, that I call the Land of the Belts. It is the home of the diabetes, stroke, and obesity belts. There are high rates of infant mortality and higher rates of poverty. Fifty-five of the 100 poorest counties in the Nation are there. That place is the southeastern United States (Region IV).
On June 14, 2016, more than 150 stakeholders gathered at the Lentz Public Health Center in Nashville for what felt like a treasure hunt. We were seeking ways to strengthen local public health departments in their efforts to address the social determinants of health (economic development, education, transportation, food, environment, and housing). This is the goal of Public Health 3.0 , a term coined by Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo, Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, to describe a bold expansion in the scope and reach of public health. The Nashville meeting was the third of five initiated by Dr. DeSalvo in regions across the Nation to gather recommendations and strategies to inform future Public Health 3.0 efforts.
Region IV has lots of challenges. There are small towns like Itta Bena, MS, which is using car batteries to help provide electrical power to communities. There are neighborhoods in North Birmingham, AL, where communities are train-trapped, impacting safety and the ability to receive emergency services. In my travels, I’ve collected many stories. But I’ve also seen opportunities. We have 150 Let’s Move! Cities, Towns, and Counties, more than 60 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, thousands of faith institutions, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in our backyard. These are our treasures. We can use them to achieve success, but we need an anchor.
I grew up in a big family in a time before cell phones. My dad had three jobs and my mom worked, too. There were seven kids to raise. Whenever a lot of us had to leave the house for something, Dad would always tell someone to be the “anchor.” It didn’t matter how old or smart you were. Your job was to know where everybody was and what they were doing and be able to connect them to each other. That’s how Public Health 3.0 envisions the local health department, as an anchor institution facilitating the collective actions necessary to assure the conditions in which all people can be healthy.
During the Public Health 3.0 meeting in Nashville, our meeting room became a ship, and the 150 community stakeholders became our shipmates. Some of us were deep-divers and some wore life jackets, but all of us were determined to grab anything that would help local health departments be better able to support Public Health 3.0 efforts across the Nation. We focused on five key aspects of Public Health 3.0: developing leadership, broadening partnerships, enhancing data and analytics, identifying funding, and improving infrastructure. We covered the walls of our ship with strategies and recommendations.
We also uncovered something else—hope. Together, we began to see the incredible possibility of a future where all communities have strong anchor institutions working to assure public health. And that left us inspired.