The magazine of the UW School of Public Health

Download full issue PDF. Spring/Summer 2017
Volume 34, Number 1

Inside this issue


Speaking Up for Population Health

Growing interest in population health from new partners can be viewed as an opportunity to show new partners how to improve the health of whole populations.

By Betty Bekemeier

Not long ago, a former student asked me to speak at a city council meeting in support of a transgender health clinic in danger of closing. I often teach classes and give presentations, but providing official testimony can be intimidating. With encouragement and help from my student, I put my testimony on record one evening, along with more than 100 other Seattle residents speaking on a variety of local concerns.

I later learned from my student that an influential council member remembered the health clinic issue because the student had brought “that nursing professor.” He voted to keep the clinic open. The experience reminded me of the vast, unrealized power we public health professionals and academics can harness by using our voices. Opportunities like these can be daunting, but they also energize and inspire. They invariably strengthen my sense of commitment to speak up, be uncomfortable, and use my power to improve the health of whole populations.

A similar sense of anxiety and uncertainty is stirring among public health professionals as we face uncertainty in federal funding and a shift in priorities under a new administration. This recent move to redefine government’s role in shaping health occurs during a time when our field is still grappling with rapidly changing and widely varying definitions of health, prevention, and equity—and our roles in operationalizing these fundamental concepts. Most notably, this includes how the health-related sectors of our economy are re-examining their relationships to one another and considering how we can collaboratively improve our health care delivery and prevention systems by ensuring population health improvement. A prime example of this is hospitals partnering with local health departments to conduct community health assessments.

For some in public health, these new entities speaking “our language” causes concern, as new people “move into our territory.” Others worry this focus on population health improvement is temporary—that it won’t last if our national health reform strategies of recent years become radically altered. I acknowledge these concerns, but I challenge us to view this new interest from others as an opportunity, not a threat.

Yes, the concept of population health, or monitoring the health outcomes of groups of individuals, is a core tenet and specialty of public health practice, but we aren’t the only ones who could or should be doing this. In fact, the nation, and indeed the world, needs many voices talking about how to advance the health of entire groups. More sectors using a population-focused approach could help create new funding streams, build broader support for our issues across the political spectrum, foster better integration of innovative ideas, and accelerate the uptake of research into practice.

Additional perspectives from health care and other sectors can also generate new data to do this work on larger scales and in more ways. One example of this is computer scientists and mathematicians working with public health partners to analyze “big data” to track outbreaks or help visualize the numbers, better integrating real-time data into population health planning and advocacy.

As we do more work with new partners, we will need to document and evaluate our efforts. The evidence about how to most effectively improve the health of populations and achieve health equity has been thankfully increasing, but we need more of it, and we need it soon. We need evidence to provide guidance for how to effectively build more prevention into our health systems, how to “do” population health, and how to address the underlying causes of health disparities such as poverty and racism.

The stories and perspectives in this issue of Northwest Public Health add to the evidence about population health improvement, highlight how our partners in practice and academia are applying new strategies, and give inspiring examples of what is possible for this work.

As we move forward in uncertain times, I urge each of us to view this new interest in population health from new partners as a valuable opportunity. Let’s welcome others into the big tent of population health practice and speak up about how it can be done.


Betty BekemeierBetty Bekemeier is the Director of the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice. She is an Associate Professor in the University of Washington School of Nursing and Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Public Health.