Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts contributed by Andrew Wickerham, who attended the 139th Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association this week in Washington, DC.
Think back to high school or college when a teacher would offer comments on a test or essay, along the lines of, “B-, could have included more background on FDR’s reason for passing Social Security.” That's not far off from the exercise the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) undergoes periodically as part of its HealthyPeople Leading Health Indicators (LHIs) program, only the note to the country is more alongs the lines of, “C-, work on diet, exercise, and making sure people with high blood pressure take their medication.”
Unfortunately, most Americans, like bored, uninterested students in history class, don't seem to care. We have yet to make improvements to our health—and by many measures are worse off than we were a decade ago. So why does the federal government bother with the regular (read: expensive) process of revising the HealthyPeople guidelines?
HealthyPeople (HP) started with a 1979 Surgeon General’s report intended to focus America’s public health agenda, prevent disease, and promote overall wellness. Three reports—HP1990, HP2000, and HP2010—followed, offering a decennial update to the national health improvement framework. Each report listed a series of LHIs, with the intent of focusing efforts for the coming decade. HP2020 launched in December 2010, and on Monday, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, MD, MPH announced the newly updated list of 26 LHIs during a press conference at the American Public Health Association annual meeting.
Now, goals and objectives are certainly good things—they can serve to guide policy and reinvigorate practice. “The Leading Health Indicators imply priorities,” former Texas Commissioner of Health Eduardo J. Sanchez, MD, MPH, said at Monday’s event. Yet, the process of setting new goals for HealthyPeople seems rather conflicted.
Early reports on the relative successes and failures of HP2010 suggest that only a few hundred out of almost 1,000 HP2010 goals were achieved, and that ground was lost in the critical area of chronic disease management, with Americans suffering higher rates of obesity and hypertension. Nevertheless, HP2020 rolls out hundreds of new goals and objectives, in addition to the new LHIs.
There was one bright spot at the meeting. For the first time HP2020 includes consideration of the social determinants of health—the non-clinical factors that affect human health—as part of the LHIs. Socioeconomic disparities are widely recognized health indicators because disparity affects ability to access health care, self advocate, and make healthier behavior choices. High-school graduation rates will be tracked as an LHI under HP2020 as a way to study the socioeconomic factors that influence health, and to encourage policymakers and providers to take a more holistic approach to improving population health.