The D.C. Department of Health has a new logo. Please ignore it.
Don’t get me wrong; I like the sleek, modern style of the new logo. But the important part of the logo change is, ironically, not the logo itself. It’s what the change signals: a shift in how we approach public health in the District.
DC Health’s vision is to make the District the healthiest city in America. Not long ago, that statement would have raised eyebrows, but I firmly believe that vision is a real possibility.
The District routinely achieves accolades for having the most fit residents. Indeed, on any given day, scores of runners and cyclists crowd the trails along Rock Creek and the Anacostia.
I applaud our athletic and healthy-eating residents, and I also know that many District residents suffer disproportionately from poor health. We won’t become the healthiest city in America until all of our residents have an equal chance to achieve health and wellness.
Part of my optimism about health in the District is based on a broader understanding in public health of what drives health and wellness, and how we’re applying that knowledge here in DC.
Many people are surprised to learn that clinical healthcare – what you get from doctors and healthcare providers in hospitals – determines a mere 20 to 30 percent of a person’s overall health. Diet and behavior play an important role in health, but fully half of a person’s health and wellness is determined by social factors like income, education, suitable housing, and a social support system.
As a physician, acknowledging that clinical medicine only plays a relatively minor role in the health of my patients is humbling. For the District’s health department, this knowledge led us to reevaluate our identity and how we do our job.
Today we see ourselves in a new role, as the city’s “chief health strategist.” In this role, our mission to promote health remains the same, as do many of our current functions, like inspecting restaurants for compliance with the health code.
What’s different is that we are increasingly engaging others to carry forth our mission. Because of this, we now focus more than ever on our relationships with people and organizations throughout the city, and work closely with them to focus on common public health goals.
But we can’t be everywhere at all times, so we also work to ensure that policies include health. The goal is to have the city’s health priorities reflected in decisions and actions well into the future. It’s why we have a seat at the table for the city’s comprehensive plan and why we participated in planning for the new soccer stadium.
Another example of being the city’s chief health strategist is our Health Systems Plan. The Plan is a tool for guiding and evaluating decisions about investments in health facilities in the District. If followed, the Plan will leave a lasting mark on the city by ensuring that residents are appropriately engaged in care and have access to comprehensive, high quality and well-coordinated health services.
Finally, consider Healthy Start, a program that provides services to pregnant women and new parents to improve birth outcomes and the health and development of infants and young children. Just a few years ago, the program was run entirely by the Department of Health. While the program achieved a degree of success under this structure, we felt others could do the work better than we could.
Today, Healthy Start is seamlessly integrated into the services provided at three private health centers located in neighborhoods where those services are needed the most. Moving the program outside the Department increased the impact of the program and expanded its reach beyond what we could have achieved on our own.
I realize that calling ourselves the city’s “chief health strategist” may sound a bit arrogant, but it’s actually an admission that we will never make the District the healthiest city in America on our own. Our vision depends on all actors in the public and private realms joining us because only together do we have the reach and scope to achieve our goal.
While some of these changes have been challenging, they’ve also given us new energy and a renewed sense of mission. We know who we are. We are the city’s chief health strategist with a clear vision to make the city the healthiest in the nation, and we have a clear mission to improve the health and wellness of our residents by making health a fundamental part of everything we do. Oh and we have a new logo too.
Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt is director of the DC Department of Health.