Among the high-profile speakers at The Colorado Health Symposium in Keystone Thursday morning, there seemed to be one common theme: preventing ill health, instead of just focusing on treating it, is key to the future success of health care in America. So how does an entire country shift it's way of thinking? Well, according to Thursday's speakers, through changes in policy.
"Policy is a key component of changing behaviors," said Charles Reyman, vice president of communications for The Colorado Health Foundation, which has been holding the annual conference for over 30 years. This year's event drew hundreds of attendees from all over the country, including policy makers, nonprofit and advocacy organization members, physicians, health care executives, insurers and educators.
The primary focus of the symposium has always been policy, Reyman said, but it's talked about in the broadest sense possible - in the legislative, but also on the personal level: how people approach the management of their families and their own health.
Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the crowd that children are now expected to lead shorter lives than their parents, which he linked to a "toxic relationship with food." Simply educating the general public about healthy choices, he said, is not enough. Over the past three decades of increased education, rates of physically active and health-minded individuals have stayed the same, while obesity levels have risen.
"This has been a 30-year experiment in the United States, and it's failing miserably," he said.
Instead, Brownell claimed change should come through economics - more affordable healthy foods - environment - what's considered healthy - and regulation and legislation. Brownell said a hypothetical national penny-per-ounce tax on sodas is calculated to decrease consumption by 10 - 23 percent, and estimated to reduce health care costs by $50 billion over 10 years. In Colorado alone, Brownell said, soda tax revenues are estimated to be able to rake in $198 million a year.
Food companies need to be regulated, he said, just as tobacco companies are. They can't be trusted to make changes on their own.
"Contrary to what companies say, that they're marketing less to children, (when in fact) they're marketing more," he said.
"Everybody knows our food system is broken... it has become an industrialized food system," said Will Allen, founder of CEO of Growing Power, Inc., a farm and community food center in Milwaukee. A former professional basketball player, Allen is considered the leading authority in urban agriculture.
Right now, Allen told the crowd, less than 1 percent of food is locally or regionally grown, as opposed to the past, when it was 85 percent. This reliance on shipping is an unsustainable model, he said, but regional centers teaching people how to grow locally - like the many outreaches part of Allen's nonprofit - are part of the solution. Growing food in cities will become necessary as the world's population swells: Allen envisions a vertical farm spanning 100-stories.
"Good food is something that will improve the health of our nation," he said.
Larry Cohen, the founder and executive director of Prevention Institute, a non-profit national center dedicated to improving community health through primary care prevention, told attendees at his previous post at a hospital, administrators would worry about having the best treatment, but when it came to prevention, they only had brochures.
Cohen said when it comes to avoiding ill health, changing the environment is key. Cultural norms across the country like lack of sidewalks, vehicle preferences on trails (as opposed to hikers and bikers), or "mega jugs" of soda are causing illnesses, he said. Cohen pulled up a slide showing that behaviors and environment influence health by 70 percent, but only 4 percent of national health care expenditures are spent on prevention.
"It's simply a question of our health priorities," he said.
Another environmental influence is the disparity between low and high-wealth areas, he said. Low-wealth neighborhoods have less supermarkets and more convenience stores and carry-out eateries. Cohen said one study showed that for every $12,500 extra in income, there's an extra year of life expectancy.
"It's about things not being fair," he said.
Speaker Pedro Greer, a gastroenterologist who has founded various free clinics for the homeless, undocumented, migrant and poor of Miami, agreed with Cohen, telling the crowd the "number one cause of disease is social."
Greer said 75 percent of medical students are white and wealthy, making it hard for them to understand the struggles of the underprivileged.
"If the main cause of disease is social, the solution has to be social," he said.
To help achieve this, Greer said an understanding and giving nature has to be implemented in the mind of medical professionals. Many in the health industry, he said, are too worried about money.
Illustrating his point, Greer told the crowd the story of a 5-year-old homeless boy he met. Greer happened to have a sandwich in his pocket, which he gave to the child. The boy took a bite and put the rest in his own pocket. When asked why he had done that, the child told Greer he was saving the rest for his brothers.
"I learned more from this 5-year old than any professor I've had," he said, telling the crowd the medical industry has the science down, but not the social science.
"Convening like this elevate the dialogue, cut through the political rhetoric, and provide the people of Colorado with an unbiased, unembroidered view of what needs to happen to improve health in this country," Reyman said.
Reyman said Colorado Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, recently wrote and passed a public schools physical activity bill based on information he had gathered at the conference in past years.
As for Summit County, Reyman said residents' access to hiking and biking can become a model for other areas in the state where activity is not seen as a priority.
"Summit County is a great example of the kind of environment that is conducive to good health," he said. "If they're doing that, it's simply intuitive that they're going to live longer, healthier lives."