The Covid-19 pandemic revealed that America’s public health infrastructure is ill-prepared for a national emergency. It also underscored the link between public health and economic well-being and why businesses must learn from the recent pandemic to better prepare for future crises.
Recently, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Productivity Studies convened a meeting of business and public health leaders to discuss threats posed by the current crisis and to offer ideas on how public health and business leaders can collaborate to prepare for future health crises.
The result is a report sponsored by The de Beaumont Foundation titled Seven Ways Business Can Align with Public Health for Bold Action and Innovation, which offers advice on how businesses can minimize future risks by improving the health and well-being of their employees and their communities.
Returns On Wellbeing Institute interviewed Dr. Ron Goetzel, the lead author of the report and a Senior Scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ron discusses the weaknesses of the U.S. public health infrastructure, why this matters to U.S. businesses, and what they can do about it.
Q. What prompted you to take part in The de Beaumont initiative?
In the Spring of 2020, the US was just entering a massive crisis. We were in lockdown, businesses were closing, people were being laid off or furloughed, causing economic hardships. Families were stuck at home with their children.
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The de Beaumont Foundation asked my team at Johns Hopkins to ask business and public health leaders what can we do now to address this crisis, and how can we prepare for future crises, which will inevitably happen.
As the pandemic raged, we brought together 40 leaders in small, virtual group meetings, including executives from Disney, Goodyear, IBM, Sodexo, and USAA. We asked them how the business community can support public health.
The report, which was released in late February 2021, is based on what these business leaders said and includes seven broad recommendations with practical actions where businesses can take the lead.
The consensus was that the private sector has a unique opportunity to help the nation recover and prepare for future crises by championing policies, practices, and institutions that advance population health and safety.
Moreover, by acting now, before the next crisis, businesses can help mitigate risks and secure a better and more stable future for all their stakeholders.
Q. How prepared is the U.S. public health infrastructure today?
Over the past few decades, health departments experienced a steady erosion of their capabilities due to fewer workers, outdated technology, and antiquated reporting systems. More than 56,000 local public health jobs were eliminated between 2008 and 2017 — nearly one-quarter of the workforce.
Now, public health departments are stretched because of the COVID-19 crisis.
As we’ve seen over the past year, governmental institutions were overwhelmed and businesses can’t wait for governments to take action when a public crisis threatens their existence.
Without a robust public health workforce, businesses risk economic carnage when the next health crisis arrives. And it’s going to get worse without a substantial injection of newly trained professionals and a massive revamping of their infrastructure.
Q. How do you define “public health?”
To most Americans, public health is a vague, amorphous, and intangible term. As Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center has observed, the “public” in public health is someone other than you – a faceless human.
But, in reality, that “public” includes you, your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors, all of whom have dealt with personal health problems that are now in extreme focus with COVID-19.
Q. Your report suggests that businesses should help improve employee health and well-being both on and off the job. How would that work?
Public health tries to prevent illnesses from occurring through primary prevention. That translates to having safe drinking water, clean air, healthy food sources, green spaces where you can exercise, and a strong economy.
Companies can play a leading role in creating a healthy workforce that is better prepared than we found ourselves over last year with Covid-19.
By investing in employee health and well-being, employers can help their own workforces be healthy and more protected through preventive care. Beyond being the right thing to do, this has profound bottom-line implications.
It starts locally, where people live and work. Employers can offer education, healthy food choices, exercise facilities, and insurance benefits that cover preventive services, access to affordable prescription medications, and mental health counseling.
But employers can only do so much during work hours. Employees go home to their families and their families live in communities.
The report mentions nine public health policies that employers can support to make their communities healthier, including: 1) affordable housing, 2) earned sick leave, 3) food safety and restaurant inspections, 4) complete streets policies, 5) safer alcohol sales policies, 6) healthy food procurement, 7) smoke-free indoor air, 8) high-quality accessible universal pre-kindergarten, and 9) tobacco 21 legislation.
Q. Talk about your recommendation that businesses form public/private partnerships to promote healthy communities
In the report, we recommend creating a new quasi-governmental position in the community, a Chief Health Strategist, who would represent the interests of both businesses and public health.
That person, housed in a prominent but non-political office, would function as a connector, convener, or liaison to bring leaders together on a regular basis to address common community health issues.
Public health officials need to clearly explain their “ask” of the business community; that is, what do they want businesses to do in support of public health. As part of that, public health officials need to put forth a business case that defines “what’s in it” for a typical business owner.
Many businesses already have business disruption and preparedness plans for natural disasters such as floods, fires, and hurricanes. With support from the Chief Health Strategist’s office, those continuity plans should also include preparation for immediate health crises (such as COVID-19) and longer-term concerns related to public health.
For example, a Chief Health Strategist could form a Public Health and Business Response Team that develops public health “stress tests.” The Team would then run tabletop simulation drills of alternative “what if” scenarios that anticipate future health emergencies and identify ways to leverage a unified community response.
Q. How can businesses help local healthcare systems function better in emergencies?
Many businesses have enormous influence within their communities. Anchor institutions and large employers can influence policies, garner resources, and provide a powerful megaphone to public health messages.
Businesses can be “force multipliers” by offering resources, skills, technologies, and general “know-how” to do things efficiently. For example, if a company like Amazon can deliver packages the next day, why can’t that type of ingenuity be applied to help get vaccines into American’s arms faster?
Start by contacting local public health departments and offer to help. Attend meetings by public health departments and, conversely, invite public health officials to your meetings.
The paradox of public health is that when “all is well,” we hardly notice. Prevention works when nothing bad happens – when we can live day-to-day life without being concerned about falling gravely ill.
We should approach public health as we do with our military. During peacetime, people go about their normal lives not worrying about an enemy tank coming up the street. That’s because we have highly trained soldiers who use advanced technology, apply 21st-century surveillance systems, and know how to respond to crises.
Why can’t we do the same with public health?
Steven Van Yoder, Co-founder at Returns On Wellbeing Institute, provided editorial support to this article.