Howard Koh

APHA kicked off National Public Health Week 2014 on April 7 with a forum focused on “Creating the Healthiest Nation Through System Transformation.” Speakers included U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, MD, MPH. Photo by David Fouse/APHA

Five years ago APHA launched a video envisioning the U.S. becoming the “healthiest nation in one generation.” On Day One of National Public Health Week national health leaders joined APHA to discuss how this vision can become a reality.

“The idea is for us to begin to start a movement, starting today, to be the healthiest nation,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, in a panel discussion hosted in Washington, D.C., on Monday. “And we think we can do that within the next generation.”

But it’s not going to be easy, as described by panelists including U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary  Howard Koh, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Steven Woolf and de Beaumont Foundation Chief Program and Strategy Officer Brian Castrucci.

The crux of the problem is that Americans are sicker and have shorter life expectancies than people in other countries, according to Woolf, who recently published a study showing that Americans are less healthy across their entire life spans than residents of 16 other wealthy nations.

“How many parents in America know that a child is more likely to die before age 5 if it’s an American child than if it’s a child born in other high-income countries, that babies are less likely to reach their first birthday?” Woolf asked. “And this is true across different subgroups. It’s not just for racial and ethnic minorities, all social classes. College-educated Americans die earlier than college-educated people in other countries. Rich Americans die earlier than rich people in other high-income countries.

“If we help Americans understand this evidence and the seriousness of the problem, I think we might see a change in the resolve to do something about it.”

Castrucci called National Public Health Week an opportunity to “start now” on working to overcome challenges, such as insufficient data and business sectors that do not yet adequately protect the health of their workforce. He also urged people to make a personal commitment to health.

“In the next 30 days try to meet with your health care or public health provider — just one step in the next 30 days,” Castrucci said. “Do it in the next 30 days. If it doesn’t start now, it won’t start tomorrow.”

Some numbers are headed in the right direction, according to Koh, including the 7.1 million Americans who have signed up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace. In between the marketplace’s enrollment periods — the first ended March 31 and the second begins Nov. 15 —Koh sees a three-pronged future with better insurance, better care and better public health.

“This is where I believe APHA and the public health community can make the greatest contribution,” Koh said. “There are leaders in this room that understand it, understand the science … and that’s where we need the prevention (strategies) to come alive.”