As America confronts the evolving challenges of the 21st century, we need increasingly to treat our public health system as part of our public safety infrastructure. Public health professionals are true first-responders on crucial fronts – including infectious disease, bioterrorism, and the health effects of changing weather patterns – and public health research is vital to being prepared for challenges that may arise suddenly.
The Ebola virus taught us all the speed with which a previously obscure virus can emerge and the importance of being in the forefront of scientific research and treatment techniques. The Zika virus showed us the importance of having emergency funding available, so that public health professionals can respond before a looming threat arrives.
In an era in which attacks on our nation are taking new forms – with cyber-attacks now common – the threat of bioterrorism only increases. Our need to be in the lead on the latest scientific research and the best public health practices is essential. Public safety should not be put at risk.
As we also seek to make health care sustainable, addressing public health threats such as chronic disease becomes ever more important as well. Chronic disease – especially due to obesity – is rising at an alarming rate in America and threatens to overwhelm our health care system, no matter how it is financed and provided.
Eighty-six percent of all health care spending covers people with chronic medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The direct medical costs for chronic diseases and conditions exceed $750 billion annually. And yet, with a strong public health infrastructure, from health departments to the built environment and controlling air pollution, we could prevent half of all chronic diseases.
In that context, our public health system should be excluded from budget cuts – just as the military and other public safety institutions typically are – and should be strengthened through new investments. Threats to public health are life-and-death matters, and cost-savings should not take a higher priority than life itself.
That’s not to say that public heath should not be held accountable. All government spending should be, but it should be judged in the context of public safety – and the cost-savings associated with better health rather than budget cuts. One of America’s greatest achievements in the 20th century arguably, after all, was the growth in life expectancy by an additional 30 years. Much of that was due to the investments in healthier environments, disease prevention, as well as child and maternal health.
Two top priorities for increased funding today should be the scientific research that fuels our understanding of health and of effective public health approaches to prevent disease and build health, and a rapid-response fund for infectious disease. Scientific research is vital to our being one step ahead of health threats. Only by being leaders in the sciences are we able to ensure that our knowledge is as great as – if not greater than – anyone else’s and to propel public health further.
The rapid-response fund is often referred to as “FEMA for public health” in reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its capacity to respond to emergencies. It would ensure that our public health system has the emergency funding needed to address immediate unforeseen threats.
Public safety is a function, in part, of public health, and public health should be viewed in that context. Our public health service protects against threats, responds to them, and advances health simultaneously.
The advancements in health more than offset the costs. Imagine what that extra 30 years of life expectancy in the United States is worth.