Earlier this summer, the Aspen Institute’s annual Aspen Ideas Festival kicked off with Spotlight Health — a three day conference highlighted by keynote speakers, one-on-one interviews, interactive sessions and panel discussions, all contributing to an on-going conversation around improving health. Spotlight Health brings together leaders from all disciplines to share stories, experiences, innovations and ideas for combatting our world’s greatest health challenges.
Click here to read my post on Aspen Ideas Spotlight Health and our work at IDEAS xLab titled ‘The importance of cross discipline engagement for improving health’ published by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.
“Spotlight Health is health out of the box,” said Peggy Clark, Vice President of Policy Programs, Executive Director of Aspen Global Innovators Group during the Aspen Ideas Spotlight Health welcome on June 22, 2017. Spotlight Health is “everything from science to art. We come together at an intense and fraught moment… we need this conversation now more than ever.”
Clark’s words rang true. For three days on the verdant campus of The Aspen Institute, a transdisciplinary group of over 800 attendees gathered to discuss everything from federal healthcare reform to equity, P(p)olicy, prevention, the integration of arts and culture, the opioid epidemic, and the role of nature in driving toward health and well-being.
In its fourth year, Spotlight Health has cultivated a dynamic mix of attendees and presenters. From younger organizations like City Health Works and us at IDEAS xLab, to sector leaders like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Vivek Murthy, the 19th US Surgeon General (2014–2017). Everyone was there to explore, ask hard questions, and drive toward solutions. The energy was palpable.
Our team at IDEAS xLab was honored to curate an exhibit of work from HEAL Community Approach (formerly Project HEAL) — our framework for training and enabling artists and cultural producers to create a portfolio of contemporary policy initiatives with community members to shape health equity. This included a presentation by IDEAS xLab Chief Imaginator and co-founder Theo Edmonds, and HEAL Smoketown artist Andrew Cozzens — whose Smoketown Life|Line Sculpture visualizes time poverty and trauma.
As we climbed onto the bus departing for Maroon Bells at 7am for an early morning panel, I was reminded of the breadth of attendees. I sat beside a type 1 diabetes researcher, diagonal from an author, behind an artist, and a few rows in front of a holistic healer. It isn’t often that these types of intersections occur — intentionally.
Walking in the brisk air, we stared at the beauty that is the Maroon Bells, still laced with snow. The water below reflecting their edges. The sun starting to rise. In what better place could a panel titled “The Soothing Salve of Nature” occur?
“Across the spectrum, we are spending less time in nature,” said Michael Dorsey, Senior Program Officer for Sustainability, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. We need to “think about ways to open up access to nature” without barriers like fees, and taking into consideration socio-economic factors. “What are the equity issues of accessing nature?” he asked.
Author Florence Williams added, “Frederick Law Olmsted understood how much we need nature… when you have public green spaces it becomes a ground for different groups of people to come together. To learn. To play.”
Williams later said, “When we engage all of our senses in nature, we get the biggest bang for the buck in health benefits.”
Florence Williams’ challenge: “Go outside. Go often. Go with friends, or not.”
Suggestion: Pickup a copy of her book The Nature Fix, find a glorious spot outside, and delve in. You won’t be sorry.
Shifting from the impact of nature on health and well-being to the impact of changing demographics in our country, my next session led me to explore the Jobs of Tomorrow.
“Longevity is a wonderful thing if you have the right supports in place,” said Ai-Jen Poo, Executive Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Co-Director, Caring Across Generations. “If we invest in caregivers to better manage chronic illness, imagine the waste we could prevent in the health system?”
Poo’s organization, Caring Across Generations is working to democratize training and credentialing for caregivers to create a “care squad” to capitalize on the human potential being left on the table. This includes designing improv training for caregivers in partnership with Second City. “It shocks me that we call it [caregiving] ‘unskilled work,’ because it takes so much capacity to uphold and enhance dignity of another human being.”
“Community health workers trade in social capital,” said Agnes Binagwaho, Vice Chancellor at the University of Global Health Equity on the topic of caregiving and epidemic prevention. “We need folks that bring everyone together… to be prepared you cannot leave any constituency out.” You shouldn’t “act because you are afraid of being sick,” she continued. “Act because every life counts.”
From demographic shifts to epidemics, our country has seen and will continue to see drastic changes.
“The opioid epidemic is the public health challenge of our time,” said Vivek Murthy, the 19th US Surgeon General; Co-Founder, Doctors for America. “More than 2.5 million people are addicted, and over 12 million are misusing opioids,” he shared.
Perri Peltz, Director of the HBO Documentary Warning: This Drug May Kill You said that they changed the beginning of the documentary to “make overdose real for viewers.” Sitting in the Koch Tent, with the breeze slowly filtering through the trees, we watched the opening of Warning, witnessing overdose after overdose — in cars, buses, stores, and homes. “People of color were under treated for pain,” said Peltz. “Which evidence suggests is why white people are more impacted by opioid addiction.”
“The epidemic of chronic stress is contributing to addiction,” Murthy continued. “Prevention has to be a priority… we need to work further upstream at emotional drivers of pain across generations. People with addiction are often struggling with other conditions and we have to treat all aspects of their health. Their inability to overcome other issues will dampen their ability to tackle addiction.”
This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), who said we have to “make sure all components are there to let people meet their full potential for health and well-being.”
A pediatrician, former ABC News chief health and medical editor and former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Besser took the helm of RWJF over two months ago, and has been on a listening tour.
“I see an opportunity for us to be a trusted non-partisan organization working in health,” Besser shared. What does that mean for RWJF? “Stick with policy and evidence rather than party to keep things non-partisan”… values and principles guide when you stand up to say something.
Besser went on to share that “co-creating interventions with a community are essential… As we talk about the problem of sugary drinks. We have to look at the type of water they have access to. If we are pushing a message to drink water, we need to make sure infrastructure is there to.”
So what’s Besser’s legacy? “I want to be able to say the health of people in America has improved because of the work of RWJF, and all people have a better shot of living their healthiest,” he said.
Being from Louisville, KY, a 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize community, meeting Besser and hearing his continued focus on driving toward a shared Culture of Health was invigorating for us. Before his session, Theo and I were able to talk with him about working in urban and rural communities, and how the Culture of Health Prize network has already proven to be an asset — having connected us with at least two additional Project HEAL communities launching in 2018 — New Orleans, LA and Asheville, NC.
Our work through the Health Impact Project — a collaboration between Pew Charitable Trusts, RWJF and Kresge Health — is a prime example of how funders are looking for new solutions, and working to find them in the Southern and Appalachian region utilizing tools including health impact assessments.
For us at IDEAS xLab, the intersection of art and health is our north star, and hearing from choreographer Alonzo King was enthralling. For him, ballet is calligraphy of thought and ideas — which he demonstrated on stage through members of his LINES ballet. “What you speak, you have to live or don’t speak it,” said King. “ Mistakes are information… Challenges awaken what is latent and brings out our inner strength.”
Mistakes are information. Yes, and initiatives that adapt as they go are something many funders don’t want to put their dollars behind in terms of innovation investments. “Traditional donors have silos for funding activities,” said Omezzine Khelifa, Founder and President of Mobdi’un. “Donors aren’t ready for models that adjust along with way (ie: evaluation, etc).”
In a time when traditional research models are falling short (for example: in evaluating arts and culture interventions on population health), we must look at transdisciplinary approaches that combine methods to find a new pathway forward. This will challenge both local and national funders to expand their rigid frameworks to accommodate adaptive learning. That is why, for our HEAL Community Approach, we partnered with the Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky to launch the Center for Art + Health Innovation to evaluate and measure progress across our five communities.
Walking across Aspen Institute’s campus, past the giant neon IDEAS letters flanked by mountains and greenery, we headed to the Doerr-Hosier Center for Breaking the Cycle: Health, Poverty, and the Social Determinants of Health. “Discrimination leads to stress, which leads to poor health,” said Miriam Zoila Pèrez, freelance race and gender writer and Doula. “Micro-aggressions aren’t that micro when we think about impact on health.”
Pèrez went on to say that there is “Something about the U.S. environment that has negative impact on people of color and immigrants.”
When we think about communities, and we think about research and healthcare, we have a lot of trust building to do.
“We’re using a biobank to level the playing fields in research related to diseases and variants for people of color,” said Kristy Crooks, Director, Colorado Center for Personalized Medicie Biobank, and Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology, University of Colorado. Crooks went on to describe that the Biobank already has 40,000 participants, and 2.1 million pieces of data available through the biobank for research.
The session, moderated by Lauren Moore, Vice President of Global Community Impact for Johnson & Johnson, also focused on the GenH Challenge, which was described as a $1 million dollar fund to “ignite new ideas that support and champion those on the front lines of care, ultimately developing breakthrough solutions to address enduring health challenges.”
The GenH Challenge is open to early stage ideas (ranging from new concepts to existing, younger prototypes), and scoring includes peer-to-peer review along with an evaluation panel for the 75 highest scoring submissions.
“We’re looking for early ideas and deep learning to see what is happening in the world,” said Moore.
When it comes to what’s happening in the world related to healthcare — specifically — to federal healthcare reform in the United States, Senator Christopher Coons from Delaware (Wilmington, DE is a Project HEAL community launching in 2018) shared how taking a bipartisan approach helps to facilitate change. Coons talked with New York Times reporter Margot Sanger-Katz about the importance of funding for the National Institutes on Health related to medical innovation, and how Alzheimer’s care “will cost us our entire discretionary budget by 2050… We must solve this together,” he said.
Whether it is federal healthcare reform or investments in foreign aid and global health — the landscape will change under our current administration. And, Coons urged, you must “be engaged,” hold your representatives accountable, and support good journalism and nonprofits.
At the beginning of Spotlight Health — Katie Drasser, Managing Director of the Aspen Global Innovators Group, The Aspen Institute — challenged us to be curious and let people surprise us. With curiosity we dove in, and we departed from our first Aspen Ideas Spotlight Health with hope.
Hope in people — who demonstrated the willingness to think broadly, explore deeply, work hard and challenge assumptions to find the right solution.
Hope in organizations — who demonstrated their willingness to be vulnerable, challenged, and inspired.
Hope — that while the road ahead is tough, there are others out there to offer support and share in the excitement that is our tumultuous health and wellbeing journey.
Whether we are thinking about prevention and the changing face of aging, or how people across disciplines are engaging arts and culture at an individual or population level — the ground is fertile with possibility.