Friday, May 13, 2011

What Does a Healthy Population Look Like?

How do you quantify something as complex and dynamic as a person's health?

First, you define it. What does health mean? Or asked another way, what does it look like to be healthy? The World Health Organization defines health as
"a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
For a long time, I found that answer sufficient. Then I became an evaluator. Now I reflect on this definition, and find that it does surprisingly little to help clarify or make measurable what health means. Replacing the word "health" with "well-being" does not provide much additional guidance and it's only somewhat useful to know that health is not equivalent to the absence, or lack of, a medical diagnosis.

Now, I don't mean to undercut the importance of WHO's game-changing definition in the history of our understanding of wellness and illness. I am saying that measuring what we mean by "health" (as well as many other constructs in the social sciences) takes significant effort. It is a complex task indeed!

A few months ago the Institute of Medicine (IOM) took a stab at defining what health means by releasing its Leading Health Indicators for Healthy People 2020 report. The report prioritizes 12 health indicators and 24 health objectives for the US government's Healthy People initiative, including indicators of access to care, mental health, tobacco use, responsible sexual behavior, and obesity. The indicators were picked from among 43 topics and nearly 600 objectives!

An editorial in the Lancet highlights that for the first time objectives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health are addressed, particularly around increasing health insurance coverage and reducing obesity.

These indicators have long been an important way to prioritize and track changes in our nation's health. It provides leverage for advocates of particular issues and vulnerable populations. In addition, it helps allocate funding to address gaps and areas that are most lagging in progress over the course of the decade.

Yet, I can't help but find it ironic that the single best measure of health comes from a simple survey question often asked by the CDC. It has been validated and recognized as credible in multiple studies through the years. To assess health, all that's needed is to ask:

Would you say that in general your health is excellent, very good, good, fair or poor?

Now that's something to think about...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Shapes Health? Find Out!

I've always had the perspective that my successes and wellbeing were influenced by factors far beyond my individual control. My family, friends, and influential members of my community provided me with opportunities and a perspective on life that helped me to 1) not be afraid to tackle challenges and 2) believe that I could be "whatever I wanted to be" if I worked hard enough.

So what does shape our health?

Is it genetics? 
Access to health care?
What you eat? 
Your environment?
The beliefs and culture you grew up in? 

I bet its a mix of all of these, with a special emphasis on those things in our social, political and economic context that are easy to ignore or may seem too difficult to measure or evaluate. I've talked about the importance of recognizing the social determinants of health in my April 2009 post 90210: Does ZIP Code Affect Health?

A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation webinar explores this question and many more this coming Thursday. Dr. David Williams, Professor at Harvard School of Public Health will moderate the discussion.

Register below and attend!

Thursday, March 24, 2:00-3:30 p.m. (EST)
What Shapes Health?
A panel discussion on how our environments and experiences, including those that shape development in childhood, also shape our opportunities to live healthy lives. Moderated by David Williams, Ph.D., former staff director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Evaluating Impact: Storytelling Versus Metrics, Which Matters?

Stories can capture the heart of a person like a number or statistic never can. Even mind-boggling statistics are just that – incapable of being fully processed and affecting us into action. Human experience on the other hand, touches us deeply and creates empathy that we are unable to ignore.

On Thursday, I listened to Jessica Jackley (co-founder of Kiva and founder of Profounder) and Jennifer Aaker (Stanford Business School Professor and author of The Dragonfly Effect) talk about the power of storytelling. It was at a Philanthropy and Civil Society event at Stanford University that was supposed to be on social media, but focused on something much more enlightening: the power of people's stories.

Many people are talking right now about the importance of metrics in measuring nonprofit impact. Metrics quantify activity and changes that are seen as a result of a program, service, or policy. While there is a place for metrics and quantifiable successes, I believe it can’t be the only way we assess change.

While some questions are amenable to a single numerical answer, many are nuanced and require skill in listening, capturing, synthesizing and communicating in creative qualitative ways. The latter begins through asking thoughtful questions and consequently by listening to peoples’ stories.

There are two reasons that we must consider the questions we ask about impact and how we gather information to answer those questions, whether through collecting numerical data or capturing stories.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Veritas Health: Evaluation Unplugged

Greeting from California!

Veritas Health has officially relocated to the West Coast. I'm excited to start putting my newly minted Harvard degree into action. I am now working for FSG, a nonprofit strategy consulting firm, in San Francisco as an evaluation consultant.

I've been learning every day how my public health training translates into skills and expertise as a strategy consultant, and I'm sure it will take a long time to figure out how (if at all) those two totally align. But what I love about my job right now is getting to integrate my data and analytical savvy with advice for decision-makers in real-time, which is a very cool opportunity.

In addition to my day-to-day activities (mostly related to data collection and analysis), I am learning about a whole new sector: funders! I am living and breathing philanthropy in a way that I never would have expected two years ago.

So what does this mean for Veritas Health? Even though I have put off writing in this blog for the past few months, I believe there is an important role that this blog could play in the field. I hope one day this project goes beyond just a place for my friends and family to find out what I've been thinking about, but really provides stories and tips that are useful to others promoting public health!

That means that I am recommitting to writing regularly in Veritas Health. You'll see a new approach to public health issues on the site: one that places considerably greater emphasis on evaluating social sector initiatives. I hope that this will provide a forum for individuals, nonprofits, and funders to be inspired, learn, and make a greater impact in their community.

Happy reading. More to come!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Documentary Film Discussion "The Day My God Died": Child Sex Trafficking in Nepal

In Nepal, a small country in South Asia, hundreds of children are trafficked into work as sexual slaves each year. While nonprofits like Maiti Nepal have emerged to fight, prevent, and assist victims of sex trafficking, political, social, and economic circumstances in and around Nepal have created conditions where child slavery and trafficking persist.

A film that documents the personal, social and human rights abuses of child trafficking, "The Day My God Died" was recently screened at Harvard University (I found the video via the Geo Blog). A panel discussed the film following the screening and was hosted by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Anuradha Koirala, Founder and Executive Director of Maiti Nepal, was among the panelists.

In attendance were academics, journalists, and anti-trafficking/slavery activists. One of my favorite questions was: "What do you think needs to happen in the Nepal, India and the US to change the social mindset so can not buy another human being, that it will not be tolerated." The question was asked by a woman working to curb the commercial sex trade through reducing demand for commercial sex among men.

Koirala responded without hesitation: "Education. Education. Education. Awareness."

Watch this short video - or find a way to view the film. I'll be looking for an opportunity to see it, as well!

Since 2001 the US government has supported anti-trafficking programs in Nepal. For more information on the U.S. anti-trafficking policy in Asia read this November 2009 USAID Trafficking in Persons report.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guest Post: A ridiculous burger

As you are probably aware, this is a time of transition for Veritas Health. I just completed my Master's degree from Harvard School of Public Health and am moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin a new phase in my public health career.

Interviewing and packing has been taking up a lot of my time these past few weeks - so I am extremely grateful to Jessica Yen, who serendipitously offered to write a guest post for VH. Jessica is a great friend and public health colleague and I hope that you enjoy her writing and insights as much as I do!
- Katelyn Mack

A Ridiculous Burger
by Jessica Yen

The other day my roommate saw a report that Lotteria, a fast food chain restaurant in Japan, has a new ten-layered hamburger called the “Cheeseburger Tower.”  Ten slices of cheese alternating between ten beef patties, the burger will subtract ten dollars from your wallet and add ten points to your cholesterol level. 

The ad claims that they created the Cheeseburger Tower in response to customer demand, but really now – I’d like to have seen those focus groups!  And although one would hope that such a menu item could not possibly catch on among Japanese consumers, it’s the broader health implications that worry this household of self-professed public health nerds.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lead Poisoning - A true global health problem

Around the world children are dying from lead poisoning and many more suffering from the neurological and physical health problems associated with lead exposure. In one region of Nigeria, lead poisoning has caused an estimated 163 deaths, mostly among children.

CNN ran a lead story on the tragic developments this week, even though it seems that the problem was first recognized back in January. Lead is a toxin that can cause serious neurological problems and even death in young children, as well as adults. The most commonly cited consequences of lead poisoning in the US are learning disabilities and behavior problems.

I am mostly familiar with the problem of lead poisoning affecting children and families through inadequate housing that contains lead-based paint. However, in the Zamfara State of Nigeria, the region where these recent lead-related deaths are concentrated, the source of lead exposure appears to be the minerals brought home by workers from the mines.