Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guest Commentary: Discussing Public Health Preparedness

Tamar Klaiman, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor
Jefferson School of Population Health

Last week, I attended the National Association of City and County Health Officials’ (NACCHO) Annual Preparedness Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, the purpose of which was to offer those working in public health preparedness an opportunity to learn more about the National Health Security Strategy (NHSS) and Biennial Implementation Plan (BIP). Both are initiatives to help the public health system increase its preparedness for a variety of disasters.

This year’s theme was “The National Health Security Strategy: Building a Resilient Nation.” Attendees included public health professionals, academics, and private sector employees. Presenters discussed a variety of activities they are involved in to help ensure the safety and security of the public’s health in times of greatest need.

The session that I felt had the most potential impact on practice was a plenary session that featured presentations from representatives of federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Department of Homeland Security. After the presentations, which gave overviews of the federal government’s commitment to preparedness, the panelists took questions from the audience.

This interaction offered an opportunity for local public health practitioners to share the challenges they face and ask questions of high-level representatives from federal agencies. It is rare that local public health and federal agencies have an opportunity to discuss challenges and opportunities for improved communication and cooperation. This session offered a mechanism for better integration across levels of government.

While the conference was focused on times of emergency, a consistent theme was that the things we do today prepare us for tomorrow. The job of public health is to ensure the population is as healthy as possible every day, and that the public health system is ready to respond to everything from localized measles outbreaks to catastrophic events such as H1N1 or Hurricane Katrina.

In this difficult fiscal climate, public health is at risk of being cut dramatically in states and localities across the country. Since it is difficult to quantify how many lives have been saved, lengthened and improved because of prevention and early intervention, public health is often one of the first areas on the budget chopping block. While there is extensive research into the benefits of public health, communicating those benefits clearly and concisely in a way that is understood by policy makers continues to be a challenge for public health researchers and practitioners. However, investment in the public’s health and safety today can mitigate the impact of emerging diseases, climate change, and other threats.

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