ASTHO Hosts 75th Anniversary National Symposium on Reaching Consensus on Public Health Challenges

March 23, 2017|5:09 p.m.| Matthew Oglesby

ASTHO will celebrate its 75th anniversary by hosting a series of special events throughout the year to recognize its members’ significant contributions to public health. This week, ASTHO organized a symposium discussion focused on building consensus on difficult issues, such as climate change, firearm safety, and reproductive health. A distinguished panel of public health leaders explored effective ways to promote health and prevent disease while also addressing controversy, conflict, and disagreement.

ASTHO’s Executive Director Michael Fraser emphasized that while ASTHO is nonpartisan and these contentious topics are often hard to ignore, they represent important and thought-provoking issues that many public health professionals encounter in their daily work.

The conversation began with Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Not long ago, climate change was a bipartisan issue,” Benjamin said, discussing APHA’s 50-year history of addressing climate and health and recalling a time when the subject wasn’t as politically divisive.

Drawing on his background as a former state health official, Benjamin emphasized the importance of not demonizing people you disagree with, but instead looking for common ground. “If the people you’re talking to don’t want to discuss climate change, you can talk about planetary health, green jobs, or emergency preparedness for severe weather events. Far too often it becomes an us-versus-them debate when it doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, if you have a severe storm that comes through your community, you’re going to need public health resources to adapt, mitigate, and respond.”

Karen Remley, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and former Virginia commissioner of health, followed with a discussion on the history of the academy, which was founded in 1930 with the mission to improve the health and well-being of all children. “When we advocate and talk about the issues that are important to [AAP], we are clear in saying that although we are nonpartisan, we are unabashedly partisan towards children,” Remley said. “When you start in that place, you can easily cross party lines.”

Remley also highlighted her experience as a former state health official working under both democratic and republican leadership to emphasize the ways in which consensus can be reached on difficult public health issues regardless of party lines. “Always working across the aisle and talking about people rather than politics—that is what helps the most and gets the work done.”

Clare Coleman, president and chief executive officer of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA), spoke about the history of the association, which began in 1971, following passage of the Public Health Service Act and Title X Family Planning Program. “We speak from a narrow but essential place,” Coleman said, describing the important role NFPRHA plays in providing information about how state family planning services are organized and delivered. “We lead as subject matter experts.”

On navigating the challenges of being a leader in the often controversial debate surrounding family planning and reproductive rights, Coleman said that she emphasizes to her staff the importance of remembering that NFPRHA exists to support administrators no matter what the fiscal climate or political ideology. “People need access to care,” Coleman said, “and we are the people who provide that care. That is the bottom line, and it is important to always keep that in mind.”

The symposium concluded with each panelist offering closing thoughts on whether they believe consensus can be reached on these important public health issues—a question to which Remley offered a particularly encouraging thought: “Right now,” she said, “there’s a lot of debate about what it means to be part of a civil society and how we can allow for personal freedom while also being part of a community. Public health is a part of any community that works—and that is a hopeful thing moving forward.” 

Visit ASTHO’s website for policy and position statements on the issues discussed during the symposium and other public health topics.

Matthew Oglesby is associate editor, public relations at ASTHO.