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"Prevention is the Prize" by Susan Servais

Health care reform has done a great job of increasing access to health care in Massachusetts. But we need to keep in mind that increasing access to health care is a means, not the end, to a healthier population. And our report out today reminds us that on that score, we still have some work to do.

Every two years, since 1999, the Massachusetts Health Council has released a report tracking costly and preventable public health problems. These include societal issues, such as poverty and lack of education, that have a real and profound impact on the health of our residents. The report also includes policy recommendations.

To me, the most troubling indicators in our report deal with violence. Massachusetts continues to have the highest rate of violent crime in the Northeast. Perhaps even more unnerving, girls and young children are increasingly becoming involved in violence while deaths from domestic violence have tripled in the past three years. Clearly, these are trends we need to reverse.

There are other indicators that have not improved and are of great concern.

Hepatitis C rates are rising in young people ages 15 to 29. One in five middle school students have been diagnosed with asthma. Nearly one in four Massachusetts residents did not see a dentist in the past year. The high school drop-out rate is increasing, and a breathtaking 60 percent of Massachusetts adults and 34 percent of children are overweight or obese.

Our report — the official name is “Common Health for the Commonwealth: Massachusetts Trends in the Determinants of Health” — typically provides a context and series of benchmarks for policymakers on Beacon Hill when they consider health care. Obviously, no issue can be considered in a vacuum and the fiscal challenges created by the country's economic problems make new state funding or programs nearly impossible in the near future. But not everything requires new money. To deal with the violence issues, for example, we recommend the re-establishment of a coalition composed of public and private agencies across various disciplines.

A common theme running through our policy recommendations is prevention. Most of you reading this blog already understand the benefits, both in cost and public health, of prevention. But we need to do a better job of getting the prevention message to the public — that lifestyle is closely linked to health, for example, and that individuals can take steps to improve their health and the health of their loved ones. We need to find creative ways to deliver that message in schools and the workplace — by providing toolkits to teachers and employers for example. As I said, every indicator we track is preventable, the solutions to these problems are documented in the report, we just need to get the word out. Prevention, prevention, prevention.

Susan Servais is executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council.

This program aired on October 22, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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