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A Radical Health Transformation: Creating a New Culture of Health in America
12/3/2014 3:22:31 PM

By Gwen McKinney

Like the water we drink, the air we breathe or the ground we walk on, health is more than being sick or well.

Beyond going to the doctor or affordable health insurance, imagine health as a blanket that covers every aspect of your life. Add to that your neighbors’ well being and preschool for their kids; a nearby grocery with affordable whole, healthy food; full voter participation and a level playing field for employment opportunities. Imagine a safe, evergreen park near your house, and corporations that care as much about people as profits.

What idyllic utopia is this?

Ask Alonzo Plough, chief science officer at the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to health and health care. He responds that all those conditions are evidence of a Culture of Health.

Plough, vice president for Research-Evaluation-Learning at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), is busy creating the approaches and measurements that lead to actions. His goal is to make this big concept tangible and real, transforming ideals into expectations. The endgame, over a 20-year period, is a Culture of Health in America.

More than a concept, he calls it a strategy.

“We want to move to a place in our nation where the healthy choice is the easy choice in whatever we do,” explains Plough. “A Culture of Health is a statement that we’re all in this together.”

Backed by an endowment of more than $9 billion, RWJF funds initiatives and programs to seed good health. Over more than 40 years, it has been an influential force in big transformations in health and health care. RWJF grants have helped institute the 911 emergency system, tobacco control, hospice and end-of-life care, and the ongoing effort to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. Mammoth and persistent social inequality, health disparities and skyrocketing costs of care are unsustainable for America to thrive. Plough quickly acknowledges that dollars alone cannot close those gaps.

“Our entire organization is reorienting our focus to implement the Culture of Health strategy,” he says. Partnerships, plans and trusting relationships with new and diverse stakeholders are essential, he says.

“We think there’s a wide array of national partners, especially among our grantees—but also beyond our current partners. We’re interested in new partners in a vast array of sectors.” Plough says this includes urban planners, architects and community development specialists, as well as rural health providers, multinational corporations and advocates for people who are medically underserved.

Look, listen and learn are also watchwords. “We are investing in engaging communities. We know a Culture of Health exists in some communities. We’re eager to learn what works.”

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