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United Way and the Public’s Health

United Way and the Public’s Health

By Kitty Hsu Dana, Vice President of Health, United Way Worldwide

National Public Health Week reminds us all to reflect on the amazing progress that has been made to improve people’s lives around the world.  Public Health made the most significant contributions to improve conditions that are largely invisible to the general public in this country today:  safe drinking water, clean sewage systems, and the surveillance and control of infectious diseases.  In recent decades, we are faced with a new challenge:  the epidemic of chronic diseases. 

In the United States, chronic diseases afflict one in two people, costs two-thirds of the $2.7 Trilliion spent on healthcare and another $1 Trillion in lost productivity each year.  These conditions are related to people’s lifestyles and are largely preventable.  People’s lifestyles, in turn, are greatly affected by the conditions in which they live, work, learn and play.  Different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups suffer disproportionately from chronic conditions.  This in great part is why the U.S. ranks 26th among developed countries in health status. 

Globally, the pattern of the disease burden is shifting. While infectious disease still remains a major problem in many countries, noncommunicable (or chronic) conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory disease, are now the major cause of death and disability, not only in developed countries, but also worldwide.  65% of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.  These conditions are no longer “rich men’s disease;” those who have the least suffer the most. 

A panel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week emphasized The Business Case for Equity of Care.  I would add the community, national and global case for equity in opportunity to be healthy.  That’s why I’m so excited about United Way’s work in all three building blocks for a good quality of life:  Education, Income and Health.  Each affects the others.  Good nutrition, physical activity and a regular source of health care improves children’s ability to focus, learn and succeed in school.  Family financial stability affects kids mental, physical, cognitive and social development.  High school graduation is directly associated with people’s health status and their prospects for a good job. 

Intentionally integrated and leveraged together, work in one building block increases the prospect of success in the others.  United Ways are particularly well-positioned to address today’s public health challenges.  By working in a wholistic way across Education, Income and Health, with partners across sectors, and engaging people to shape culturally appropriate solutions and participate in implementing the solutions, United Ways are improving lives for the most disadvantaged people in communities across the country, and around the world.