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‘Public Health 3.0' represents future of fighting public health problems in Sonoma County

A high-ranking federal health official visited Santa Rosa on Tuesday to discuss a new direction for local public health departments, one that would push them far beyond their traditional role as watchdogs of communicable and chronic diseases and make them community partners in identifying the “social determinants” of health.

Outlining an approach dubbed “Public Health 3.0,” Acting Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Karen DeSalvo said the health of a community is more effectively addressed long before the onset of illness, where access to education, affordable housing, employment opportunities, recreation and nutrition all play a key role.

“Health is more than health care,” DeSalvo told those gathered during a day-long public conference at the Finley Center in west Santa Rosa.

Attendees included the state’s Public Health Officer Karen Smith and the health officers for Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties, local elected officials and representatives of nonprofit health care organizations.

DeSalvo’s Public Health 3.0 pitch was a familiar tune for those attending the conference, many of whom have been implementing such “upstream” efforts for more than a decade. In fact, federal health officials identified Sonoma and Napa counties as one of a handful of U.S. regions with a history of implementing broader efforts to improve public health through innovative partnerships.

Santa Rosa was the second stop in what DeSalvo referred to as listening sessions aimed at highlighting local public health strategies. Future stops include Nashville, Spokane and Kansas City.

“We really look forward to learning what’s working and what’s not,” DeSalvo said.

During a panel discussion on “multi-sector collaborations,” Alena Wall, executive director of the Center for Well Being, discussed the 9-year-old Health Action community collaborative, which seeks to eliminate health disparities in Sonoma County.

“In our community, ZIP code determines life expectancy and we can do better,” Wall said after the conference. “We want to have the largest and long-term impact by changing the context, focusing on equity and making the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Wall, who heads the Health Action steering committee, said the collaborative focuses on linking health systems, expanding and improving early childhood education and promoting economic wellness.

Napa County Health Officer Karen Relucio discussed the lack of affordable housing and the plight of the county’s homeless residents, including a recent successful campaign to get the City Council to approve a homeless housing proposal that had been rejected by the city’s planning department. Relucio said that housing the homeless is an effective way of reducing future health care costs.

Dr. George Flores, a former Sonoma County health officer during the 1990s, was among those who attended the conference Tuesday. Flores, who is now program manager for prevention at the California Endowment, said Sonoma County’s path toward upstream health care initiatives started many years ago with efforts to “involve” disadvantaged communities. An early example, he said, was St. Joseph Health’s outreach into the Roseland neighborhood in southwest Santa Rosa.

Flores called it a process of “democratizing health,” where local residents become “agents of change for improving conditions in their community to create greater opportunities for better health.”

For that to effectively happen, Flores said the public - and not just the public health department - must be the primary focus future of public health initiatives.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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