Surgeon General

The Power of Prevention Within Our Communities

Crossposted from Environmental Justice in Action

By U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA

I am a long-time champion of the power of prevention. As a family physician, I learned there were problems my prescription pad alone couldn’t solve – that if I wanted my patients to be healthier, I had to address issues like low literacy and access to healthy food.

Surgeon General's Walk with students for Munger School in Detroit, MI

Surgeon General’s Walk with students for Munger School in Detroit, MI

Today, prevention is the foundation of my work as Surgeon General. Health does not occur in a doctor’s office alone: health also occurs where we live, learn, work, play, and pray. It is my privilege to chair the National Prevention Council. Established by the Affordable Care Actand Executive Order 13544, the Council was designed to bring federal departments and agencies together to support health and prevention.

In 2011, we released the National Prevention Strategy, which includes four Strategic Directions that provide the foundation for our nation’s prevention efforts: healthy and safe community environments, empowered people, elimination of health disparities, and clinical and community preventive services. Working together, we can achieve the Strategy’s vision of moving from a focus on sickness and disease to one based on wellness and prevention.

Our communities have great potential, but barriers can make reaching that potential challenging. Limited resources, unhealthy housing, pollution, and other environmental justice issues can lead to poorer health. In the United States, health disparities are closely linked with social, economic and environmental disadvantages. Lack of prevention can take a devastating toll on individuals, families and communities. That’s why we need to make sure prevention efforts get to the people and places that need them most.

As I’ve traveled the country talking with communities about the National Prevention Strategy, I’ve been impressed with how communities are coming together to overcome health, safety and environmental challenges through putting prevention to work. We can only succeed in creating healthy communities when air and water are clean and safe; when housing is safe; and when neighborhoods are sustainable, especially in areas that face disproportionate health burdens.

Habitat for Humanity Worksite in Washington, DC

Habitat for Humanity Worksite in Washington, DC

Partnerships are critical to success. Many federal efforts reflect the value of collaborative efforts, like the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and Green Ribbon Schools. I have also seen prevention-focused partnerships at work on the local level, including Fighting D in the D and Maryland Health Enterprise Zones. These examples are only a small sample of the work going on around the country.

In order for communities to be healthy and environments clean and safe, we need to continue to uplift prevention as the greatest opportunity to improve the health of America’s families, now and for decades to come.

About the Author: Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA is the 18th United States Surgeon General. As America’s Doctor, she provides the public with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and the health of the nation. Dr. Benjamin also oversees the operational command of 6,500 uniformed public health officers who serve in locations around the world to promote and protect the health of the American People.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

The Power of Prevention Within Our Communities

By U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA

I am a long-time champion of the power of prevention.  As a family physician, I learned there were problems my prescription pad alone couldn’t solve – that if I wanted my patients to be healthier, I had to address issues like low literacy and access to healthy food.

Surgeon General’s Walk with students for Munger School in Detroit, MI

Surgeon General’s Walk with students for Munger School in Detroit, MI

Today, prevention is the foundation of my work as Surgeon General.  Health does not occur in a doctor’s office alone: health also occurs where we live, learn, work, play, and pray.  It is my privilege to chair the National Prevention Council.  Established by the Affordable Care Act and Executive Order 13544, the Council was designed to bring federal departments and agencies together to support health and prevention.

In 2011, we released the National Prevention Strategy, which includes four Strategic Directions that provide the foundation for our nation’s prevention efforts: healthy and safe community environments, empowered people, elimination of health disparities, and clinical and community preventive services.  Working together, we can achieve the Strategy’s vision of moving from a focus on sickness and disease to one based on wellness and prevention.

Our communities have great potential, but barriers can make reaching that potential challenging.  Limited resources, unhealthy housing, pollution, and other environmental justice issues can lead to poorer health.  In the United States, health disparities are closely linked with social, economic and environmental disadvantages.  Lack of prevention can take a devastating toll on individuals, families and communities.  That’s why we need to make sure prevention efforts get to the people and places that need them most.

As I’ve traveled the country talking with communities about the National Prevention Strategy, I’ve been impressed with how communities are coming together to overcome health, safety and environmental challenges through putting prevention to work.  We can only succeed in creating healthy communities when air and water are clean and safe; when housing is safe; and when neighborhoods are sustainable, especially in areas that face disproportionate health burdens.

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Habitat for Humanity Worksite in Washington, DC

Partnerships are critical to success.  Many federal efforts reflect the value of collaborative efforts, like the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and Green Ribbon Schools.  I have also seen prevention-focused partnerships at work on the local level, including Fighting D in the D and Maryland Health Enterprise Zones. These examples are only a small sample of the work going on around the country.

In order for communities to be healthy and environments clean and safe, we need to continue to uplift prevention as the greatest opportunity to improve the health of America’s families, now and for decades to come.

About the Author: Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA is the 18th United States Surgeon General.  As America’s Doctor, she provides the public with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and the health of the nation.  Dr. Benjamin also oversees the operational command of 6,500 uniformed public health officers who serve in locations around the world to promote and protect the health of the American People.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Green Heart: Spreading the Word about Air Pollution and Your Health

By Kathy Sykes

When I moved to Washington DC from my native Madison, Wisconsin, I missed the clean air that I had taken for granted.  Summers in DC with sweltering temperatures and “Ozone Action Days” made it feel difficult to breathe just walking to work.  On those days, a song kept playing in my head, “Pollution,” by satirist Tom Lehrer.

“Pollution, pollution, Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I couldn’t see the harmful air pollution, but it weighed heavy on my chest on my daily jogs around Capitol Hill.   Even though my work at the time (for the Senate Aging Committee) included health issues, I never worked on raising awareness about air pollutants and their serious harmful effects on older adults, especially those living with heart disease.

That’s changed now that I’m at EPA, where I serve on the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Periodically, the Forum publishes a chart book of key indicators of well-being, including an indicator on air quality and older adults.

In 2012, the Forum released its fourth update on air quality and demonstrated progress made overtime with respect to the two most harmful air pollutants for older adults: PM 2.5 (also known as particulate matter), and ozone.  The chart book shows (click on the link for Indicator 27) the percent of people living in counties with air pollutants above the EPA health-based standards.

Each state monitors air quality and reports it to EPA.  The EPA then determines whether air pollutant measurements are above health standards.  In 2002, nearly half of the population lived in counties with poor air pollution. By 2010, about 40% of our population lived in a county with poor air quality for some period that year.

While we are making progress, more work remains to be done.

Another federal collaborative effort I devote my time to is the National Prevention Strategy (NPS) that was created as part of the Affordable Care Act.   Seventeen federal agencies work together to look at what we can do to advance health prevention.

Led by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, each federal agency announced commitment areas as part of the NPS.  One of EPA’s is through the Green Heart initiative which strives to educate people about air pollution and how they can reduce their exposure on poor air quality days.

The Green Heart initiative complements the Million Heart Campaign, an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent a million heart attacks over five years.  The Green Heart Initiative has a simple message for people with cardiovascular disease: check the Air Quality Index and reduce your activity on days when the air quality is not good.

There is even an app that will notify you when the air quality is unhealthy. A fact sheet, Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart, for older adults and their caregivers can be ordered on-line on EPA’s Aging web page.

While there are still counties where air pollution is an issue, I’m glad to know there are actions we can take to protect our heart health.

About the Author: Kathy Sykes has been working for the EPA since 1998 where she focuses on older adults and the built environment and healthy communities.  In 2012, she joined the Office of Research and Development and serves as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.