State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy and Secretary of Health John Wiesman discuss the challenges and successes of Washington’s public health system. (Credit: Washington State Department of Health)

This Public Health Week, learn how public health affects you

State officials aim to improve our public health system

Are you or someone you love older than 47? You might have our public health system to thank.

Forty-seven was the average U.S. life span in 1900. Back then, people died young from many illnesses and injuries that largely have been eliminated through dramatic improvements in sanitation, food and water quality, immunizations and other public health and medical interventions.

Today the average life span is nearly 79, and much of that improvement can be attributed to advancements in public health.

To emphasize the contributions of public health, Washington’s Department of Health is getting the word out about National Public Health Week, April 3–9.

“This week is about making public health visible,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. “Public health is really important to people’s daily lives, but most don’t know it because the work of public health is often behind the scenes.”

The state Department of Health labs tests shellfish from Washington to make sure they’re safe for consumers. (Department of Health photo)

Public health focuses on population health and safety — for example, it supports vaccinations to protect an entire community from preventable, infectious diseases. Over time, many serious, once-common diseases such as polio, measles and whooping cough have been nearly eliminated, thanks to vaccines and other prevention efforts.

Today, public health workers across Washington are trying to prevent the spread of a mumps outbreak affecting almost 700 people in 13 counties; investigators have interviewed thousands of people and provided testing and medical advice to stop the disease from spreading.

Public health employees delve into causes of food-borne illness to make sure the food we eat and the water we drink are safe. Right now, 22 drinking water alerts for potential health hazards are under investigation.

The state’s public health system also coordinates disease testing, newborn genetic testing, and licensing and oversight of the quality of care given by every health care provider in the state.

Funding challenges

Despite the importance of these efforts, public health investments at the state and local levels have been a challenge, especially during the Great Recession. During the past several years, as the Legislature prioritized fully funding public education and invested in other health care priorities such as prevention and mental health, public health funding has stalled.

(Credit: Washington State Public Health Association)

Indeed, the state lags behind others when it comes to paying for public health: Washington ranks 24th in the nation in public health investments, spending about $30 per resident, while Idaho spends about $54 and Wyoming spends about $90, according to a 2014 Trust for America’s Health report.

At the county level, many public health departments struggle with limited funding, according to the Washington State Public Health Association, a group of local health agencies and organizations. The association recently helped launch a Public Health is Essential campaign.

Only about 40 percent of health departments in Washington are following up on blood tests for lead in children because of budget constraints, Wiesman said.

In rural Asotin County, the health district was unable to respond to communicable diseases, including a potential tuberculosis case, in a timely manner because of limited staffing. The public health department in nearby Columbia County had to close one day a week for lack of funds and is overdue on completing a community health assessment, which should be done at least every five years.

“Public health is about public safety, growing a healthy next generation and making sure people can age healthfully,” Wiesman said. Because of a lack of funding, “I’ve told both the governor and the Legislature that I can no longer guarantee to them that public health can perform the job the public expects of us.”

Supporting public health

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed 2017–19 budget would invest $25 million more in public health. That includes supporting local health departments and boosting the state’s response to communicable disease outbreaks.

Public Health Week proclamation (PDF)

Aside from money, state law also can play a vital role. For example, Washington’s Clean Indoor Air Law put a stop to smoking in public places, thus removing cancer-causing smoke from workplaces and other spots where people gather.

This year, Inslee is supporting at least two bills in the Legislature that would benefit public health: House Bill 1054, which would increase the age limit for tobacco use to 21, and HB 1432, which would set core public health standards for every county in the state.

Under HB 1432, the Department of Health would prepare a report to lawmakers about the public health needs across the state. Those testifying in support of the legislation said the bill would help smaller counties in the state prevent disease outbreaks.

The Department of Health also has a plan to modernize the state’s public health system that includes increasing laboratory services, disease investigation and data systems. Read about the plan here.

On Thursday, Inslee signed a proclamation about National Public Health Week, asking Washingtonians to join him in “thanking the public health professionals working on our behalf to make our state one of the healthiest in the nation.”

In addition to protecting our health, “responding efficiently to public health emergencies saves taxpayer dollars and protects our economy,” the proclamation states.