Lessons From APHA 2016

In an election year that laid bare significant divisions in our country, the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA 2016) in Denver was an important reminder that the work of public health touches all Americans and that much of public health enjoys wide bipartisan support. The de Beaumont team returned from a successful week at APHA 2016 just a week before the election. Many of our partners in public health and other sectors, including Don Bradley from the Practical Playbook, joined us. As always, this meeting was a great opportunity to connect with the field and get a pulse of what’s happening across the U.S.

APHA 2016 reinforced my impressions from last year’s gathering of the public health world – a continuing, growing focus on “upstream” social determinants of health; a pivot to cross-sector partnerships, specifically the importance of using public health approaches to help inform and add value to policy and program choices in a variety of areas; and a continuing search for practical approaches for making this happen.

Because of the size and breadth of APHA, this meeting reflects a field struggling with significant challenges and considerable opportunities. Even before the election, public health leaders faced a transforming landscape – dramatic shifts in healthcare coverage and delivery, public health agencies shifting away from serving as a “safety net” provider of health services, and an emerging role in stimulating and influencing health-related initiatives across sectors. An evolution of thinking in the public health community is reflected by new paradigms for public health agencies, serving as a community’s “chief health strategist” as information hubs for communities and as cross-sector leaders addressing broad health-related issues.

At the same time, APHA 2016 was a reminder of the depth and extent of the work public health agencies perform in more traditional areas. These functions are critical not only to protecting health of communities, but also to maintaining and amplifying the credibility of public health agencies. Without performing traditional functions with excellence, public health leaders will have little opportunity to assert broader influence on policy and program choices that are important to their communities.

For many agencies at the state and local level, pivoting to new approaches, such as those described in PH 3.0, remains out of reach due to resource constraints, lack of adequately trained staff, and challenges in adopting new technologies and approaches. Public health agencies deal with the reality of daily crises and the need to execute on existing functions. It’s sobering to see how difficult it is to free up the needed resources, people, and talent to fully embrace new approaches, such as providing value to the broader community as a chief health strategist.

Fortunately, APHA 2016 served as a clearinghouse for public health leaders seeking ideas and practical solutions.  Many approached us with examples of how they have used the resources of the Practical Playbook to good effect. Multiple sessions featured successes of BUILD Health Challenge grantees. They focused on the significance of constructing partnerships to address a community’s unique needs and put emphasis on hospitals, among the “anchor agencies” of these partnerships. Creating the necessary trust among competing hospitals isn’t always easy, but as the BUILD Health Challenge grantee in Des Moines showed, it’s possible for them to work together towards a shared purpose.

A session featuring the de Beaumont Foundation and ASTHO highlighted success stories of how Medicaid and public health agencies have worked together. They spoke on the importance of building relationships to create change. The Medicaid-Public Health Library can act as a valuable resource for Medicaid and public health agencies trying to do so.

APHA 2016 also provided some interesting insights into how public health is defined and how we communicate beyond the public health world. At the de Beaumont exhibit, we asked meeting participants to tell us how they described public health. The answers covered the wide spectrum of APHA members: prevention, equity, access to care, community health, partnerships. APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin provided one broad view, and de Beaumont’s Brian Castrucci provided another in interviews on APHA TV.

Finding better ways to communicate about the value of public health is critical and will be a growing focus of the de Beaumont Foundation in the years ahead.