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January 23, 2015

Defining health beyond the clinic

It’s easy to mobilize our society when infectious diseases are involved, but outside of infectious disease control, defining who’s responsible for the health of a society becomes complex and controversial. Yet no single stakeholder can be responsible for fixing the problem of chronic disease or disparities in health. We need to broaden our definition of health beyond what we know as “health care”—that is, being treated by a doctor when you’re sick.

My Data for Health tour co-chair, Dr. Ivor Horn, facilitating a panel of experts at the Charleston stop of the tour

For example, land use planners may not consider themselves as health officials, yet they create zoning regulations, sidewalks, walking and biking paths—factors that are instrumental for building healthy neighborhoods.

Beyond health care and prescription drugs, we must look at which social services, transportation services and financial considerations could advance the health of a patient. In partnership with the City of Boston, doctors at the Boston Medical Center are writing bike rental prescriptions for lower income patients with sedentary lifestyles. This enables patients to increase their exercise and overcome cost barriers to access bike rental programs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health initiative envisions a society that empowers everyone to live the healthiest lives that they can, even when they are dealing with chronic illness or other constraints. This initiative imagines a health care system that couples treatment with care, and considers the life needs of patients, families, and caregivers, inside and outside the clinic

As the co-chair of RWJF’s Data for Health series, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from health care, public health, schools, businesses and planners in cities across the U.S. Health is the responsibility of individuals, organizations and communities. For public health to thrive, we have to be more assertive at building partnerships—not just with health care—but also with schools, city planners, businesses, social services and faith communities. 

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII