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On the Front Lines: Celebrating America’s Public Health Professionals Dr. Reed Tuckson

Medical Advisor, United Health Foundation
Executive Vice President and Chief of Medical Affairs, UnitedHealth Group 

It is almost impossible in today’s world to avoid a news story or conversation about some health-related issue or another. It seems that each day brings reports of a new “scientific discovery”; a “lifesaving technological innovation”; escalating concerns about the cost of health care; or the myriad details concerning health policy challenges and legislative choices associated with expanding access to health care for our nation’s citizens. Unfortunately, too often lost and taken for granted in the maze of all this is the essential efforts of the 450,000 public health professionals who work tirelessly behind the scenes to promote health and prevent disease. Despite their hard work, support for our nation’s vital public health infrastructure at the federal, state, and local levels may be at risk and, as a result, so too is the health and the financial wellbeing of our nation.

According to recent reports by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, public health can be defined as those activities that fulfill societies’ interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy through organized community efforts aimed at the prevention of disease and promotion of health. Achieving the mission of public health requires an inclusiveness of engagement that involves the medical care delivery system; the private sector; community organizations; departments of community development and planning; philanthropies; the media; recreation agencies; housing authorities; and other social stakeholders. In essence, the work of public health involves significant coordinative functions in addition to its own activities such as conducting mass vaccination campaigns; producing PSAs to encourage healthy behaviors and reduction in injuries; conducting disease and bioterrorism-related surveillance; ensuring safe water supplies; and working with pregnant women to deliver healthy babies.

The work of public health today is as important to each American and to our nation as a whole as it has ever been in our history. While we are blessed with an extraordinary lifesaving armamentarium of medical technology interventions, the medical treatment of illnesses is becoming more costly and unaffordable with each passing day. Unfortunately, as a result of our failure to optimally prevent illness and promote health, we are experiencing an ever expanding number of people who are living with preventable chronic illnesses that require treatment in an ever more expensive care delivery system. This is simply incompatible with the best interests of individuals and our society. We must do more to tackle the preventable risk factors for disease such as a persistently high level of tobacco use and the dramatic escalations in diabetes and obesity. These and other challenges create urgency for all of us across society to embrace public health, its dedicated professionals, and its infrastructure.

Sometimes it helps to put a face on an issue. Let me introduce you to Dr. Marion Kainer, the director of health care associated infections for the Tennessee Department of Health. Recently, she was among the first to notice a suspicious case of meningitis associated with an injectable compound. Utilizing her experience from years of disease detective work, she was key to quickly unraveling what we have now come to understand as a nationwide emergency associated with fungal contamination of drugs made by a medical compounding pharmacy in another state. Her personal diligence and collaboration with other expert professionals at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Food and Drug Administration undoubtedly blunted what would have been a major catastrophe. In addition to Dr. Kainer’s impressive skills, without a coordinated public health infrastructure and the engagement of stakeholders across the nation, she would not have been successful and many more people would have suffered.

I am proud that early in my career, I was fortunate to be a member of our nation’s public health army. As a nation, we now face increasing levels of preventable illness, serious medical care affordability and access issues, and difficult choices regarding the allocation of public resources. urge all of us to do what we can through our individual efforts to promote our own health, the health of our families, and the health of our communities. We should also engage the institutions with which we are affiliated to celebrate and collaborate with local public health professionals in our shared goal to ensure the conditions necessary for our families and communities to be healthy.

To our nation’s 450,000 public health professionals, thanks for all that you do for each of us every day!

Read stories of other public health heroes here.

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