Improving Population Health

Healthy communities are thriving communities

Population health (also sometimes called community health) is the overall health of a group of individuals – a nation, neighborhood, ethnic group, etc. Tackling population health means addressing the underlying causes of good or bad health. These include access to resources like healthy food systems, safe affordable housing, and adequate employment. It also means ensuring that all people in the group have the tools, information, and support to pursue optimal health.

When a community as a whole is healthy, the benefits to all are great; fewer health problems, higher productivity in the workforce and at school, lower healthcare costs, and increased economic growth, just to name a few. So how does a population health promotion strategy work? The basic idea is to try to address the root causes of disease before people get sick and require treatment. This means looking at the basic foundation of a society – economic and educational opportunity, community design, and available resources and services — and making sure everyone’s needs are being well-met and there is a level playing field.

The problem is that no one organization or entity is completely responsible for managing overall health improvement, and without any one group focusing on a population’s overall health, it’s difficult to make any progress on a large scale.

But there have been successes – immunization efforts that protect people from preventable infectious diseases; indoor clean air policies that protect people from second hand smoke; seatbelt, airbag and  child car seat improvemements, and overall improved car design that protect people from the impact of a crash — all have had remarkable results. These successes were the result of addressing the issue on multiple levels, from inspiring widespread social change to enacting new policy.

From the vantage point of the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness at Oregon Health & Science University, achieving population health will mean encouraging communities to demand equal access to nutritious food and health-supporting physical and social environments, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Obstacles to attaining this vision are many: A lack of political will or commitment in this area is, by default, maintaining an unfortunate status-quo. Communities cannot simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” without leadership. If we want to see real progress in community health, we have to foster public demand, and address the underlying causes that make chronic disease common.

This is where the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) comes in. If we can make decisions as communities, today, based on the knowledge that these same decisions will determine who we are and what our communities can become tomorrow, we will go a long way toward sculpting the best places to be pregnant, to develop and to live long and healthy lives. It will take work, but it can be done. The question is, what can you do to be part of the solution?