Georges Benjamin, MD, is executive director of the American Public Health Association, which is hosting National Public Health Week, April 2-8.
To our detriment, America's health system has been reactive – struggling to treat individuals after they've been diagnosed or are already living with a chronic condition, instead of promoting preventive actions and services. Our nation spends the most on health care, but gets the least in return. It is clear that a defensive health care model does not work.
While the Supreme Court recently heard arguments about the Affordable Care Act, one thing is certain: regardless of how the details of our nation's health system shape up between now and 2014, we need to be more on the offense. In fact, by simply increasing the use of preventative services such as tobacco cessation screening, alcohol abuse screening and aspirin use, we could save $3.7 billion annually in health costs.
Last year, the Surgeon General's office released a comprehensive plan to help create a healthier nation while reducing health care costs – the National Prevention Strategy. The strategy was generated by the ACA to guide America from a system focused on treating the sick to one focused on wellness and prevention. It is crucial that we empower communities, local policymakers and individuals to take the lead in creating healthy environments, providing preventive services and eliminating health disparities.
The strategy calls on everyone – health care providers, businesses, individuals, communities and government – to take action to reform our health system. It addresses health at every stage of life, including preventing drug and alcohol abuse, avoiding injury, encouraging active living and healthy eating, ensuring mental health and emotional well-being, encouraging reproductive and sexual health and preventing tobacco use.
The first week in April marks National Public Health Week, hosted by the American Public Health Association – an ideal opportunity to remind our nation that preventing illness is the key to helping people live longer, healthier lives and reducing the cost of care. Throughout the country, public and private organizations are partnering to celebrate this year's theme, showcasing the National Prevention Strategy: "A Healthier America Begins Today: Join the Movement."
Little steps can lead to big action throughout the United States. For example, during NPHW, the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus will open the Colorado Center for Health and Wellness. The center empowers individuals, communities and organizations to make sustainable changes toward healthier lifestyles. The opening will kick off with a "wellness walk" led by the Surgeon General to rally support for prevention.
The National Prevention Strategy is a roadmap to transform our health system by focusing on preventive medicine and lifestyles, not just providing care after diagnosis. We invite you all to incorporate prevention into your lives and your community by making small efforts such as engaging in regular physical activity, ensuring you receive proper vaccinations, promoting tobacco-free environments in businesses and schools and advocating to local members of Congress for sidewalks and bike lanes to promote active living. Learn more about the small changes that can make a big difference at www.nphw.org.