It has been an interesting couple of weeks for those of us concerned with improving the health of our communities. The last half of March had us celebrating the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act and listening to the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court about its future. And this week the focus shifts to yet another critical aspect of our goals for better health: the expanding definition of public health. April 2-8 marks the American Public Health Association’s annual National Public Health Week, focused on the theme of “A Healthier America Begins Today: Join the Movement.” And on April 3rd, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute released the 2012 County Health Rankings, which show us in detail that where we live matters to our health.

So even though they don’t involve chanting crowds on the National Mall and intense questioning from Justice Kennedy, National Public Health Week and the County Health Rankings send a clear message: acting to improve health involves multiple sectors and the way we measure health must be expanded. This year, National Public Health Week highlights the importance of prevention and wellness, including the contribution made by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA is not just about the health care system; it also supports public health and includes several initiatives aimed at breaking down the siloes between our health care “system” and public health by creating incentives and policy tools to drive collaboration. The law includes the National Prevention Strategy, which is a prevention framework that tackles issues such as health disparities, encouraging healthier behaviors, and creating healthy environments for work and play. And, the ACA requires non-profit hospitals to collaborate with public health partners and communities in identifying and addressing pressing community health needs, as part of their core community benefit requirements.

With National Public Health Week, the County Health Rankings, and the National Prevention Strategy all in the mix, the next question is, “what should be done to improve a community’s health?” The County Health Rankings model shows that there are a multitude of things we should all be doing to make our communities healthier. Some actions are clearly identified with health, like programs to help people quit smoking or outreach to increase the number of people getting screened for cancer or heart disease. However, the County Health Rankings model also includes a variety of other issues rarely discussed as part of health, like strengthening our education system or creating stable jobs in our community. Both research and experience show that these issues contribute to community health, and community advocacy is essential in taking action to address them.

For example, New Mexico Voices for Children is using funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Roadmaps to Health Community Grants to help communities and decision makers understand and support public policies and practices that promote both early education and health. In Springfield, Massachusetts, Partners For a Healthier Community is using also using a Roadmaps to Health Community Grant to create the Wellspring Initiative, which is engaging large local institutions, like insurance companies and hospitals, to support a new community-owned business that can create new jobs for local residents.

These organizations and others supported by the Roadmaps to Health Community Grant are hard at work on issues like education, income and employment, family and social supports, and community safety, knowing full well that addressing those issues will ultimately improve the health of their communities. They are a part of the changing definition of public health, like many other organizations across the country. The County Health Rankings, National Public Health Week, and the National Prevention Strategy are pieces of the larger movement to improve health in our communities, and we are seeing their impact every day.

– Phillip Gonzalez,  Program Director Roadmaps to Health Community Grants