Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Greetings from D. C.

As I waited in line to go through airport security, I sensed that Terminal 1 (Lindberg) at MSP was more crowded than usual for a Sunday afternoon.  It was certainly noisier.  Looking around, I realized that many of the participants from the just-completed USA Cup were there preparing to fly home.  Throughout the terminal, groups of athletic-looking kids from various countries and states were massing one last time.  One mass of boys just in front of me was part of a Mexican team that was gleefully passing around a huge trophy.  A team of girls from Japan was right behind me.  They were more sedate but no less proud of their championship trophy.  Although it took longer to get through security, the energy and joy in the lobby made the wait less onerous. 
On the plane, I was seated next to a U-16 girl from Maryland, whose team lost in the semi-finals.  Even though her team didn’t go home with a trophy, her experience of being around 958 teams from 22 states and 16 countries made it one of the most memorable experiences of her young life.  “Just being here was exciting.  Even though we didn’t win, I felt like I was part of a bigger world – something big and important.  I’ll be back.”  
On the other side of me was an 80 year old engineer who for many years worked on and ran critical components of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program and who is now consulting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on nuclear reactor safety.  As I asked him about the length of his career, he admitted, “I promised my wife that I’d retire when I reached 80, but I can’t quit quite yet.  My work is too important.  I’m no longer in charge of some of the big projects but my input is essential if we are going to get it right.”
After our initial conversations, I settled into my seat for the two hour flight to Washington D.C. where I will be part of a 3-Region “Infant Mortality Collaborative Meeting” sponsored by the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA).  I’m anticipating that there may be 30 – 50 people at our infant mortality meeting.  At the same time, tens of thousands of people will be in D.C. for the International AIDS Conference.  I have no doubt that the AIDS meeting will get lots of media attention while our meeting will get none. 
That made me think, which issue is more important in our efforts to improve the health of people throughout the world?  Obviously, that is not the proper question because addressing both issues is essential in our public health work.  Yet, the media does ask that question and it’s hard not to feel slighted when one’s important work on an important issue fails to capture the interest and attention of the media and the public. 
This is a real dilemma faced on a daily basis and MDH is not immune.  Currently, the department is in the process of finalizing the Healthy Minnesota 2020 plan.  With the hope of limiting the size and keeping the plan manageable and useable, a decision was made to not specifically list all possible problems, diseases, high-risk groups and populations, or risk factors.  Instead, an attempt was made to create broad categories that would be inclusive of all of these issues, many of which already have a comprehensive plan of action that’s been developed and were articulated in the needs assessment that accompanies the Healthy Minnesota 2020 plan.  Yet, how does one develop a plan that provides some focus without dismissing the importance of essential public health problems, populations, and programs?
At the same time, the department is in the early stages of developing its 2014-2015 Budget.  After years of budget cuts, every program within the department is essential in protecting and improving the health of Minnesotans. Yet, there is also a recognition that limited resources and time-limited opportunities will necessitate some prioritization of activities.  How does one set budget priorities without dismissing the importance of every other departmental program that is essential for the success of MDH?
Those questions kept bringing me back to the perspectives of my seatmates on the flight.  One didn’t win the soccer tournament but knew she was part of something bigger.  The other no longer was the visible head an agency but valued his continuing contributions to an important effort.  Both recognized a larger frame in which they existed and were comfortable with their place within that frame. 
For public health, that larger frame is social justice – everyone should get basic needs met and no one should benefit at the expense of someone else.  This frame of social justice assures efforts to create health equity and the inclusion of high risk population in all public health efforts. 
That broader public health frame is also one that is much longer than the next news cycle, the next planning cycle, or the next biennium.  It is a frame that includes multiple generations.  This long-term frame helps assure (I’m an optimist) that, at some point, all public health issues will become a visible priority and get the attention they deserve.
And that larger frame acknowledges that all parts of public health are connected to and influenced by every other part of public health.  Successful action depends on that interconnection.  A healthy community cannot happen without the efforts of everyone in public health.  We must work to help assure the success of every one of our public health colleagues and they must reciprocate.  After all, it’s what “we do collectively that assures the conditions in which people can be healthy.”
After we landed, seat D, E, and F all headed in different directions.  Yet, because of our conversations, we knew that we all had something in common and it wasn’t just Row 34 – it was something much bigger than that.

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