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Population Health Summit Keeps NJ Residents and Communities Well

Nutrition, lead poisoning, and fitness were key targets at meeting that brought together state agencies and advocacy groups

Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett
Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett

A diverse range of programs — promoting breakfast in the classroom, screening for lead poisoning, maintaining state parks and safe streets — are all part of New Jersey’s increasingly broad strategy to promote public health in ways that will reduce chronic diseases, curb healthcare costs and improve the residents’ quality of life.

These topics were among the agenda items at the state’s first Population Health Summit, convened last week in Sayreville by the Department of Health. The event included representatives from eight state departments, including six cabinet members, and dozens of others from academic institutions, philanthropic foundations, and advocacy organizations. Hospital officials, insurance providers, and local officials also joined the conversation.

The summit is the latest effort by Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett to underscore the importance of population health, which emphasizes keeping people and communities healthy. The approach seeks to shift healthcare focus and resources from primarily treating sick patients in costly settings, like hospitals, to programs that prevent diseases, improve nutrition and exercise, and better manage chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Bennett has made population health a priority at DOH, creating the Office of Population Health soon after she was appointed acting commissioner in August 2015. The office seeks to improve collaboration among hospitals, local health departments, and other providers. In July, she convened a Population Health Action Team to focus department staff on a handful of key healthcare indicators, including access to care, immunizations, and obesity.

“New Jersey is transitioning from a clinician-driven health- care system of episodic care to one focused on wellness, prevention, and community engagement. Put simply, the goal of population health is to keep the well healthy, support those at risk for health problems, and prevent those with chronic conditions from getting sicker,” Bennett wrote in a DOH newsletter last winter. “Population health requires that health considerations are evaluated when developing policies and coordination among government, employers, schools, local public health officials, community health workers, and community and faith-based organizations.”

Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, has also embraced this approach through work on the Mayors Wellness Campaign, which supports local leaders in population health issues, and the Conversations of a Lifetime program to encourage families to have frank discussions about end-of-life care. Healthcare costs in this nation are driven largely by our tendency to opt for expensive treatments — particularly for terminally ill seniors — and our limited investment on wellness and prevention, she noted.

“The federal government is pushing the health-care system, and physicians in particular, to move to an outcome-based payment system, but they can’t succeed alone. Real success will hinge upon how quickly our country can embrace and support Population Health. We must realize that the dollars we spend today on prevention, nutrition, early childhood development, and safe and trauma-free neighborhoods will save dollars tomorrow and lead to stronger cities and more productive and healthier citizens,” Schwimmer wrote in June.

Last week’s summit included several advocacy groups focused on children’s health, including school nurse representatives, officials from the state’s YMCA alliance, and representatives from Rutgers Center for State Health Policy. Also participating was the Nicholson Foundation, which has supported healthcare coalitions that coordinate with various social service agencies to improve population health in Camden, Trenton and Newark.

Raquel Mazon Jeffers, Nicholson’s senior healthcare program officer, called the summit a “significant step” and praised Bennett’s leadership. “Heath is multifaceted and so our interventions must enlist the support of partners across government and the private sector,” she said. “We'd like to continue to partner with government to strengthen the coalitions, expand their impact, and improve the health of the population."

State representatives included, among others, Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher, who talked about his department’s role in providing healthy school meals and stocking food banks; Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, who discussed the importance of parks and open space; and Alison Blake, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, who described the 50 Family Success Centers DCF created to help clients meet improved nutrition and fitness goals.

The Housing First Initiative has become a priority for the Department of Community Affairs, explained commissioner Charles A. Richman. DCA is working closely with healthcare teams in several urban hubs to help find stable housing for chronically ill patients who tend to cycle in and out of hospitals, in part because they have no safe place to try and live a healthy life. DCA is also part of a state-funded pilot program to identify and remediate lead-paint hazards to better protect children and pregnant women, he said.

“Given the diversity of issues that influence health, it is critical that we partner to build on each other’s efforts and the work of our stakeholders,” Bennett said.

The summit also featured a video about the state’s efforts on population health.

While Gov. Chris Christie has come under fire over the years from advocates for social service programs who have said funding cuts for programs to detect lead, provide open space, or pay for healthcare services for the poor have undermined their efforts, a spokesman for the governor’s office said the event shows the governor remains committed to ensuring the health and wellness of state residents. “This summit demonstrates the Christie administration’s commitment to advancing holistic initiatives by bringing together a diverse group of organizations, leaders and partners, who are dedicated to improving health outcomes for women, mothers, children and men of all ages and from all corners of the state,” spokesman Jeremy Rosen said.

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