How should we craft our message?
That was the main question of the Closing Session of APHA's 2011 Midyear Meeting in Chicago, which welcomed more than 600 attendees. And what an interesting question it is. Think about it: Why — with so many facts, so much data and with other countries soaring past us in the health statuses of their populations — why is there so much controversy and pushback to efforts to fix an obviously broken health system? Why doesn't the argument that we're all in this together — that when one person is lifted, we're all lifted — resonate more widely? Why, why, why don't the facts of our current health situation trigger a massive outcry from every corner of the nation?!?!?!
Well, we've totally been asking the wrong question and talking the wrong language, according to Closing Session speaker Lawrence Wallack, dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University, who said that while "we believe deep down that the facts will set us free and that data will win the day," the facts actually matter much less than we think. Wallack's speech was an inspiring and thought-provoking moment — one that made this blogger both more hopeful for public health and yet, increasingly frustrated that public health successes can't speak more plainly for themselves. (And as a traditionally trained journalist, having someone affirm that facts matter less and less just made me sad.)
Wallack told attendees that while health reform supporters use controlling costs as a way of persuading the public to support reform, opponents secretly rejoice. Confused? Wallack explains it perfectly: Reformers keep thinking that there's a cost-related answer that will satisfy the opposition. When all along, the only answer that will satisfy the opposition is one that won't even solve the problem. It's a never-ending discussion with no end point that provides a perfect distraction.
"The reformers," Wallack said, "are trapped in their own question."
On the other side, opponents of health reform are occupied with entirely different questions — ones about freedom and the roles of government. And in an argument about costs vs. freedom, freedom always wins, Wallack said. At the end of the day, it's about what words mean, not what words we say, he said. (Isn't that just the greatest way to put it?)
So where do we go from here? First we need to correct our fundamental errors and start making better arguments about what kind of country we are and what kind of values guide us, Wallack said. The real issue is how we define fairness; how do we create messages that reflect public health's social justice values, Wallack said.
"This is about who we are as a people," he said.
In sending off the attendees of this year's Midyear Meeting, APHA's Dr. Georges Benjamin said to get passionate about social justice and health care. His presentation nicely complemented sentiments of the session's first speaker, Assistant U.S. Surgeon General James Galloway, who noted that reform can "bring us to the pinnacle of public health."
"We are angry and we're not going to take it anymore," Benjamin said. "The health of Americans is too darn important."
You got that right!
Don't forget to join us in October for APHA's 139th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., where the theme of the meeting will be "Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies." Click here for registration info. And, of course, your devoted APHA bloggers and this very blog will be in D.C. to cover all of the exciting events.
See you in the nation's capital!
Above, Lawrence Wallack, Georges Benjamin and James Galloway help close the 2011 APHA Midyear Meeting. Photo by Michele Late