Population health initiatives by the pharmaceutical industry

I have been beating the population health drum for more than 20 years, and I think the rest of the band is finally catching on to the rhythm.

From healthcare reform efforts at the very top of the heap to the healthcare industry to large and small communities, there is a heightened awareness that the physical and mental health of our diverse population is linked to our continued health and success as a nation.

Even the First Lady, Michelle Obama, has jumped on the bandwagon with her campaign against childhood obesity which features programs like “Let’s Move!” and the “White House Kitchen Garden.”

Because it is framed in a political context, her campaign has sometimes been ridiculed – but from a population health perspective, she couldn’t be more on target.

I’d like to call attention to another bright spot on the population health horizon – one that has been growing in intensity, albeit without much fanfare.

It may come as a surprise to most Americans – and even some healthcare providers – that some of the largest U.S. pharmaceutical companies are partnering with community organizations and government agencies, funding and launching non-product-related population health initiatives.

In fact, a few companies have been engaged in projects that emphasize prevention and wellness for several years.

In no particular order, here are three examples of global pharmaceutical company investments in the health of specific at-risk populations in U.S. cities:

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK): Children’s health

For almost 10 years, GSK has funded Zone Health, NC Prevention Partners’ school wellness program that combats childhood obesity by helping schools promote good nutrition and physical activity during the school day.

Currently, GSK is supporting an expansion of this initiative — a distance learning program with interactive, web-based training and an online assessment tool that provides tailored feedback to school wellness committees.

Closer to home (in my city of Philadelphia), GSK is the sole supporter of The Children’s Health Fund Referral Management Initiative, a program that ensures continuity of care for medically underserved, high-risk children, who are often homeless.

Sanofi US: Senior health

In partnership with the National Council on Aging, Sanofi piloted Community Connections to Aging Well, a diabetes self-management program targeting seniors in Atlanta, Baltimore County, Md., and San Antonio.

Company representatives encouraged providers to refer Medicare patients with diabetes to 6-week diabetes self-management workshops held at nearby senior centers.

This year, the program will be expanded to promote diabetes self-management programs to Hispanic seniors with diabetes in San Antonio.

The Merck Company: Minority populations

The Diabetes Equity Project is part of The Merck Company Foundation’s Alliance to Reduce Disparities in Healthcare. The program goal is to mobilize community-based partners to help close gaps in diabetes care for low-income, underserved people with diabetes in Dallas County, Texas.

In 2009, Merck awarded a $1.7 million grant to the Baylor Health Care System to enhance and expand diabetes care at its Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute, which is situated in South Dallas, an area characterized by diversity, economic challenges, a high prevalence of diabetes, and limited access to healthcare services.

Programs, including nutrition and cooking classes and a diabetes drug distribution system in addition to clinical services and collaborations with other community organizations (e.g., public health programs, schools, churches) multiply the opportunities to improve the health of the population.

At a recent school meeting, I put a question to my colleagues: “How would you improve the health of your city if a pharmaceutical company partnership were offered?”

Everyone agreed that we need a deeper understanding of the health of our population – first and foremost, an appreciation of how socio-cultural determinants, poverty, education, and crime affect the health status of individuals and communities.

There was also general agreement about how to best use resources both directly (e.g., consumer/patient education, providing healthy food, expanding on the Schweitzer Program model that addresses social issues and specific needs) and indirectly (e.g., gaining a deeper understanding of behavioral economics).

The bottom line is that companies, organizations, communities, and individuals are beginning to take action to help make the U.S. population a healthier one.

And, as a population health “drummer,” this is music to my ears.

David B. Nash is Founding Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University and blogs at Nash on Health Policy.

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