The start of April marks National Public Health Week, an annual effort to raise awareness about the critical public health matters facing Americans. While such recognition is important, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, is working to make public health considerations a part of everyday decision-making for government policymakers and businesses leaders.
An initiative of the American Public Health Association, National Public Health Week highlights a different topic each day: behavioral health, communicable disease, environmental health, injury and violence prevention, and ensuring the right to health. That range of subjects demonstrates that health is shaped by the places where people live, work, learn, and play—not just their genes and behaviors.
The Health Impact Project links decision-makers across sectors such as transportation, education, housing, and planning to find ways to work jointly to address health. The project has focused on increasing the use of health impact assessments (HIAs), a tool designed to evaluate proposed projects, policies, and plans through a “health lens.” Put simply, HIAs analyze the benefits or dangers to public health if policymakers decide to build a road, introduce a food tax, reduce emissions, or embark on any type of new project.
The HIA process engages a range of community members—including those who would be affected—to better understand their concerns and perspectives. This work involves developing recommendations for ways to maximize public health benefits while minimizing any risks.
HIAs look at individual proposals, but the larger goal of the Health Impact Project and many others in the field is to see health routinely considered in decision-making. For example, in 2015, Enterprise, an affordable housing nonprofit that operates in markets across the country, added health to its funding criteria for green development efforts. Drawing from the success of the Enterprise Green Communities Design for Health Criteria, the Health Impact Project is providing funding and technical assistance to five partner organizations to find replicable strategies to ensure that health is a routine part of the decision-making process.
There is a growing understanding of how health issues intersect with social and economic factors in our daily life. Efforts like National Public Health Week help bring attention to new ways of looking at how to keep communities healthy. Ultimately, however, the goal of the Health Impact Project would be to render such a week obsolete: Every day would be a public health day, and everyone would be a public health practitioner.
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Stacey Millett directs the Health Impact Project.