Assistant director for the State Public Health Division speaks at OSU

Dr. Mel Kohn, director of the Oregon Public Health Division and a state health officer, spoke at Oregon State on Friday, May 21, about the changing face of public health in Oregon, and the need for increased funding and support for public health efforts across the nation.

Kohn spoke at OSU as part of the OSU ESH (Environment, Safety and Health) Corporate Partner Presentation Series, which has brought occupational, environmental and public health speakers to campus since 2003 with the help of corporate sponsors.

At the turn of the last century, public health departments were recognized as an important factor in fighting outbreaks such as influenza, polio and tuberculosis, but in the middle half of the 20th century, health care became much more focused on doctor-patient relationships, and funding for public health programs dwindled.

But recent public health threats, including H1N1, have raised demand for a comprehensive, governmental strategy for treating outbreaks, and Kohn said, hopefully reinforced the need for a strong public health system.

“People wanted us to do things which they’d been denying us authority and funding for many years,” Kohn said.

Luckily federal dollars poured in for flu response programs. However, that one-time money does not address the broad need for public health system funding. Public health’s role is defined by three core missions: assessment, policy development and assurance.

“We really are about action,” Kohn said.

That includes education, but also looks at changing the social environment in the United States so that healthy choices are more available, and individuals are empowered to make those choices. Some of the biggest public health threats today are smoking and obesity

One area in great need of improvement, Kohn said, is in making the level of training and expertise at local public health departments consistent.

“We need to do more and more training, and get people the skills they need,” he said. This includes increasing public health officials’ skills at navigating in the political sphere, which has a great influence over public health decisions and funding.

Kohn said universities with public health programs like Oregon State are important allies.

“We need to have more interaction between governmental public health and our institutions,” he said.

Currently 17.6 percent of the gross domestic product goes toward healthcare, but only one percent of health care dollars are spent on public health. Meanwhile, 80 percent of preventable deaths are due to behavior and environment, things that can be directly addressed by the public health care system.

Under new federal health care reform, $15 billion will be invested over 10 years in prevention and public health funding. And some changes at the state level have Kohn hopeful about the emphasis on public health in Oregon. During the last legislative session, the Oregon Health Authority was created. It will combine agencies focused on health, including public health.

“It will broaden the state’s public health focus,” he said. “It’s a major change in a positive direction.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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