Health commissioner's view: Practical health changes can prevent diseasesAmericans in the 21st century live 30 years longer on average than their early 20th-century predecessors. While better hospital care and other improvements to health-care systems deserve some credit, it is estimated that 25 of the 30 years of extra life expectancy now are due to advances in public health — in other words, to broad measures such as vaccines, anti-smoking campaigns, and safe food and water.
By: Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Duluth News Tribune
Americans in the 21st century live 30 years longer on average than their early 20th-century predecessors. While better hospital care and other improvements to health-care systems deserve some credit, it is estimated that 25 of the 30 years of extra life expectancy now are due to advances in public health — in other words, to broad measures such as vaccines, anti-smoking campaigns, and safe food and water.
National Public Health Week this month was a good time to celebrate our successes and to consider what else we can do to improve our health.
One of the biggest challenges before us is chronic disease. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health recently reported that up to 80,000 Minnesotans may have diabetes without knowing it. The strategies for fighting diabetes and other chronic diseases differ from the strategies commonly used to fight infectious diseases. The battle against chronic diseases has less to do with medicines and vaccines and more to do with healthy choices by individuals and communities.
Whether a person develops diabetes, cancer or heart disease is determined in part by family history as well as by choices regarding exercise, diet and tobacco use. This means we can empower people to be their own first line of defense against chronic diseases.
Healthy living is not just about willpower. Many things interfere with our ability to make healthy choices, including lack of money, information, time or opportunity. Fortunately, these barriers can be overcome by working together as a community. That basic concept is the foundation of a promising program called the Statewide Health Improvement Program, or SHIP.
SHIP works by curtailing disease before it starts. Through SHIP, communities receive targeted funding to make practical changes proven to lead to better health for their citizens. Communities across Minnesota have embraced this approach.
SHIP is at the center of a movement working to create healthy communities, which in turn helps people make healthy choices. Other Minnesota efforts include the Blue Zones Vitality Project in Albert Lea and the Heart of New Ulm program, which was launched in 2008 by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and Allina Health.
Despite its long-term economic benefits, SHIP’s state support has been uneven. After a promising start in its first two years, legislators slashed SHIP funding by 70 percent for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. This meant SHIP could provide community grants to only about half the state.
But the Dayton administration wants to restore SHIP to a statewide program and make sure all Minnesota communities benefit from this effective and common-sense approach. That is why Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget includes $40 million for SHIP in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. For perspective, consider that Minnesota spends a combined $5.7 billion in annual medical costs as a result of obesity and tobacco use.
With our population aging and the so-called “silver tsunami” about to break over us, we’re not going to treat our way out of these costs. We must focus instead on prevention. Restoring SHIP to statewide status is a smart investment that puts the brakes on runaway medical costs and pays off in better health.
Dr. Ed Ehlinger is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.