Calling for a Philadelphia dialog on public health

Comedian Bill Cosby and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint lead a discussion about community health on Monday. (RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff Photographer)

By Michael Yudell

The state of community health in Philadelphia was the topic of discussion at an Atlantic magazine-sponsored event at WHYY's studios in Center City on Monday. The Town Hall, headlined by comedian and Philadelphia native Bill Cosby and his longtime friend and collaborator Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard, examined some of the challenges facing Philadelphians and the health of their communities.

The event itself wasn’t groundbreaking, but is part of a growing chorus of people calling for action — to “think big” — about improving the health of our communities and fostering partnerships between communities, government, academia, and business. We in public health have, of course, been doing this for a long time, but it’s good to see greater recognition of this work. The important stuff will be what comes next.

At Monday's Town Hall (a video of the full discussion is here), Cosby and Poussaint paid particular attention to the problems of obesity in kids and its long-term impact on community health, as well as the need to stem the obesity epidemic raging right here in the City of Brotherly Love. As Nan Feyler wrote Tuesday here at The Public’s Health, obesity in Philadelphia’s school kids has dropped 5 percent over the past four years. This success suggests that changes to the food environment in schools can have significant impact.

Still, according to a 2010 report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, obesity in the city has fast become “a norm and a public health crisis.” In North Philadelphia, for example, more than two-thirds of kids are overweight or obese.

Poussaint reminded folks at the Town Hall – mainly people who work or have a strong interest in public health – that “if you are really going to deal with that issue, it has to start in pre-school or before.” And he insisted that for change to happen, “everybody has to be literate about health.” Other panelists and audience members called attention to some of the successes here in Philadelphia — reintegrating recovering addicts back into their communities, community health programs at the 11th Street Family Health Services clinic, the breastfeeding education programs of the Maternity Care Coalition. All agreed, however, that for impactful and lasting change to occur, government, communities, academics, and business must come together to address the challenges we face together.

This, of course, means a commitment of resources from all of the above, most especially the largesse of our local, state, and federal governments to provide for and strengthen the social safety nets that protect the public’s health. We must also call upon government and other private funders to support existing health programs and to help develop innovative new ones that address the complicated challenges of public health. Those who continue to push austerity in the face of growing public health crises will only worsen what are already poor health indicators, particularly here in Philadelphia, which ranks dead last for health outcomes in Pennsylvania, according to the recent County Health Rankings Report, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The Atlantic magazine will be working with GlaxoSmithKline to bring similar discussions to other cities. Mayor Nutter and Deirdre Connelly, Glaxo’s president of North American Pharmaceuticals, together penned an op-ed in Monday’s Inquirer that called attention to Philadelphia’s public health challenges and wondered why, in a city with incredible health and scientific resources (from our world-class hospitals and academic research centers to our locally-based health-related businesses), such problems persist.

“It’s time to begin a national conversation” on the “serious public health challenges that could cripple our future,” they wrote. “With business and government working together, we can find innovative solutions to our must troubling public health-care problems.”

We couldn’t agree more. And we look forward to hearing more from Nutter and Connelly — and from Comcast and Blank Rome and Drexel and Penn and all the others with stakes in this city, big and small, new and old — in hopes of fostering a real dialog on matters of public health.

Read more about The Public's Health.