If you were at today's Opening Session, you probably feel a little bit more appreciated than usual. Nearly every speaker who came to the stage talked about what an honor it was to be surrounded by APHA Annual Meeting attendees — the people who've dedicated themselves to making the world a better place for everyone one community at a time.
APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin started the trend, asking attendees to stand up and be recognized. In fact, he called on attendees to clap loud enough so all of San Francisco would know that for the next four days, the Moscone Convention Center would be home to that great and determined force that is public health.
Speaker Reed Tuckson, executive vice president and chief of medical affairs at UnitedHealth, followed the trend, noting that it "is an extraordinary honor to be in your presence." He began by noting the "tsunami" of preventable disease now threatening to destroy the health care system and the disaster it represents for all payers of health care services. But to overcome this towering problem and achieve the vision of this year's Annual Meeting, "Prevention and Wellness Across the Life Span," it'll take four steps, he said.
The first: Organize a new vision for our work and be willing to sustain even when things become uncomfortable for our individual activities. Dismantle our myopic silos, Tuckson said — we need a new kind of visionary leadership that knows how to mobilize all pieces of the puzzle. Second: Data and analytics are key to realizing this vision. Without data, he said, we won't be able to identify individual risk, need, preferences and cultural values. Fortunately, we're now living in an era in which there's so much rich data coming from so many sources, but we need to be able to put it all together to tell a "novel" about a person's life. But, he warned...
"Do we have the ability to ensure that individual's data will flow with the person across the continuum and across the lifespan...(but still) guarantee trust and protection and security," he asked. "Once you lose trust, it is very, very difficult to get it back. So we must redouble our efforts...to make sure we never violate it."
Third, we need the ability to successfully engage people, families and communities so they'll take the necessary prevention and wellness steps. And fourth, we need to recruit and coordinate multidisciplinary health teams...and "blow up the artificial silos" between the public health and medical sectors. Tuckson said he spends a lot of time preaching to his medical colleagues about the importance of reaching out to public health, noting "public health deserves to have more resources, not less." Tuckson also noted that this year's America's Health Rankings report, which UnitedHealth releases annually in partnership with APHA and Partnership for Prevention, will celebrate public health workers.
"This is the time for celebration of what you are," he told attendees.
After Tuckson came a surprise speaker: U.S. Rep. and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi! She began by thanking Dr. Benjamin and APHA for supporting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and helping to ensure its passage into law. She said the day after the House of Representatives passed its version of health reform, she was talking with President Barack Obama on the phone, who said he was happier that night than the night he was elected president (how cool!). Pelosi said that during the run-up to the law's passage, she and her colleagues in Congress committed to go up to any fence in their way and push it open; if it didn't open, they'd climb over it; if it was too high to climb, they'd pole vault; and if it's too high to pole vault, they'd parachute. Of course, today we all know the happy outcome.
"We were successful because we were not alone," Pelosi told attendees. "When we pushed opened that gate, you were right there with us."
A little bit later APHA President Melvin Shipp gave a truly beautiful talk, alluding to the metaphor represented in the simple dash between the birth and death dates that appear on our headstones. The dash represents our life span, he said, and where we live, work and play impacts the quality of that dash. A dash can mean a dash of salt, a short distance or that extra emphasis in a sentence — a dash is small, but so important, Shipp said.
He ended by applauding passage of the Affordable Care Act.
"Remember, we must remain mindful of those who would seek to dismantle these gains," he said.
Speaking of the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh came to the stage to accept the 2012 APHA Presidential Citation on behalf of its winner, President Obama. In accepting the award, Koh said that no president in recent history had done more for the health of Americans than Obama.
"On behalf of the president, I thank you for this honor and gratefully accept this award for him," Koh said.
Keynote speaker Gail Sheehy, best-selling author of "Passages," which was first published in 1976, spoke on how the passages in our lives are changing. People are taking longer to grow up and much, much longer to die, she said. She illustrated the vivaciousness of today's golden years as she read the dating ad of an older man who bragged about having "many new parts." Even after our very young years, we continue to go through passages and transitions and turmoil — and it's these times of passages that are ripe for exploration, Sheehy said. These passages are the perfect time to reach out to people with healthy messages too, as they're already in the midst of re-evaluating their lives, she said.
"It's in these times of passages when we need to make constructive changes," Sheehy said.
She said age 50 is the infancy of "our second adulthood" — a time when we can start over. (In fact, she referenced a recent survey in which respondents said being old is when a person turns 79.)
But even though the many transitions in people's lives represent such great opportunity, she said we're also facing two great emergencies: the stress and lack of support for caregivers and the epidemic of Alzheimer's disease. In regard to caregiving, she said it's critical that caregivers have a network of support, noting that every family member who develops Alzheimer's will cost somebody $1 million. Talking about Alzheimer's, she said that while the wave of the future is nonpharmacological treatment, the epidemic isn't going to be solved by treadmills and crossword puzzles — it'll be solved in the lab. And we need to advocate as loudly as HIV advocates did to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s. (To read more with Gail Sheehy, check out this Q&A with Sheehy in The Nation's Health.)
"Our time in life is longer than we ever dreamed it would be," Sheehy said.
Above from top to bottom, Opening Session speakers Reed Tuckson; Nancy Pelosi; Gail Sheehy; and APHA President Melvin Shipp presenting the APHA Presidential Citation to Howard Koh, who accepted on behalf of President Obama. Photos courtesy Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography