APHA Annual Meeting 2013: Q&A with Georges Benjamin, APHA Executive Director

Oct 28, 2013, 1:53 PM

Georges Benjamin MD, APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin MD, APHA Executive Director

More than 10,000 public health officials, academics and students will gather in Boston next week for the 2013 American Public Health Association Meeting in Boston. This year’s theme is “Think Global, Act Local,” drawing critical attention to the increasingly global world of health where events across the globe—from food safety, to infectious disease outbreaks, to innovative public health solutions—can impact every local neighborhood.

>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground at the APHA Annual Meeting, with speaker and thought-leader interviews, video perspective pieces and updates from sessions, with a focus on what it takes to build a culture of health. Follow our coverage here.

Ahead of the annual meeting, NewPublicHealth spoke with Georges Benjamin MD, APHA executive director.

NewPublicHealth: Why is the theme “Think Global, Act Local” so important?

Georges Benjamin: We’re in a world in which everything is global. There are no boundaries anymore. Rapid transit through planes, the fact that our borders are so porous...public health has always been a global enterprise, but even more so today. Our food comes no longer from a single farm but from multiple farms and sometimes multiple countries, so foodborne risks for disease and illness are global. We’ve seen that terrorism disasters are global. We’ve seen that obesity, particularly with corporations that sell certain products globally, is a big issue, and tobacco has always been a global issue. So, public health is global, and the idea is that if we can learn from people around the world and then utilize those learnings within our local communities, we’ll be stronger

NPH: What are some of the meeting sessions you’d highlight?

Benjamin: Our opening session will feature Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the International Institute for Society and Health and Research Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London, who spoke at our meeting five years ago on the social determinants of health and is going to give us an update. In the closing session, we’ll hear from actor/physician/public health doctor, Evan Adams, MD, the deputy provincial health officer for British Columbia, who will speak about improving the health of native people. So in both our opening and closing sessions we’re looking globally, as well as emphasizing what happens locally. We’ll also hear from the minister of health of Taiwan, who will talk about universal health care as well as violence prevention. And we’ll also be holding sessions that track the many public crises that we’ve already had this year.

The U.S. government is back at work, so many of our friends and colleagues in government public health positions will be able to be with us this year at the annual meeting.

NPH: How will you showcase the role of public health under the Affordable Care Act?

Benjamin: I remind people that, while of course crucial, giving people insurance is only a small part of what the Affordable Care Act did. Obviously, it’s going to bring coverage to more than 30 million people who didn’t have it before, which is at least half of the population that was previously uninsured. But public health is also going to be very much involved in making sure people get the access to the clinical preventive health services made possible under the law. Even among people who have health insurance, more than half of those people do not receive clinical preventive health services. Public health is going to be involved in the community services. Only about 10 percent of what makes us healthy is something that doctors and nurses do, so most of what we do to maintain our health or to be healthy occurs long before the doctor’s office. Public health is going to play a major role in activities around wellness and preventing disease. The Affordable Care Act has major provisions around health policy development, assessing the community as well as building a workforce to respond to both clinical and community health needs.

And we’ll be addressing implementation of the Affordable Care Act as well. We’re actually going to have a booth there so that we can enroll people who may want to be enrolled in the health exchanges. There have been challenges with that, but we’re comfortable and confident that the administration is working very hard to get the health exchanges up and running.

NPH: Boston, of course, faced a public health crisis this year when bombs injured and killed so many at the Boston Marathon. How has that helped shape the conversations and sessions on preparedness at the annual meeting?

Benjamin: We’re going to talk about the bombing. What many people don’t know is that the Boston Public Health Commission, which is what the department of public health in Boston is called, actually oversaw the emergency response because the EMS function and preparedness function for the city lies with them. Barbara Ferrer, who is the head of the Boston Health Commission, and many of her staff members will be speaking formally and informally about the Marathon bombing.

And we will also talk about disasters overall. Hurricane Sandy occurred during last year’s APHA meeting, and next year our meeting will be in New Orleans, which is our return to that city for the first time since we had to move the meeting site following Hurricane Karina. So the idea of preparedness is top of mind for many of our participants and for us before and during the meeting as well, to make certain that people’s personal security is ensured.

NPH: Anything else you’d like to highlight about Boston as the site for this year’s APHA annual meeting?

Benjamin: Absolutely. Boston’s health department was the first one in the nation, and Paul Revere was Boston's first health officer. The board of health was formed to fight a potential outbreak of cholera. Health officials posted signs on lampposts, held meetings and led an early-day public information campaign to reduce deaths.

>>Bonus Link: On Friday and Saturday, the American Public Health Association will be holding a Codeathon  to bring together developers, designers, coders, public health professionals, students and others to create apps, platforms, visualizations and other innovations to help support public health organizations implement the Affordable Care Act. The Codeathon is free to attend, but participants must register in advance. The designs will be judged by a panel of experts and prizes awarded to the winners.

Examples of ideas potential coders can work on include:

  • Developing an app to connect community members to tobacco cessation services
  • Design a program to help make preventive health screenings more widely accessible
  • Create tools to collect data to support public health research

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.