It could be the most exciting mission this country has undertaken in decades. Think about it: Eliminating all preventable diseases for all Americans? Saving billions of dollars in health care costs while we're at it and placing the United States firmly back on top of the global economy? Those are the kinds of lofty goals this nation is famous for setting—and for achieving.
In today's New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni opines the end of the space shuttle program. While conceding that NASA's budget might be spent in more useful ways, he notes that "as the centerpiece of our country's gaudily ambitious space adventures, the shuttle program was a preeminent symbol of our belief that there were literally no limits to where we could go and no boundaries to what we could accomplish, so long as we hitched our ingenuity to our imagination and marshaled the requisite will."
These days, Americans may be too worn down by the glacial pace of the economic recovery and too riven by partisan rhetoric to find the gumption to rally around anything as unglamorous as disease prevention. A national convergence of ingenuity and will doesn't stand much of a chance in a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and doom.
As crazy as it sounds, I think the recent launch of the National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council—despite its stultifying name—could be just the ticket to rekindling a national sense of pride and passion.
The council intends to bring together federal agencies with outside organizations and experts to "take a community health approach to prevention and wellness." Its strategy will "prioritize evidence-based policy and program interventions intended to meet measurable goals related to the leading causes of death and disability and the factors that underlie these causes, including tobacco use, obesity, poor nutrition, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol abuse."
The Affordable Care Act mandates $15 billion over 10 years to support the initiative, compared with the $200 billion spent on the shuttle program over 40 years. And the payoff could be dramatic. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation notes, "This country spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to treat preventable illnesses, diseases and injuries. Preventing them in the first place is the most cost-effective, common-sense way to improve health, and doing so provides a significant return on investment."
It's encouraging to note that the council plans to build on federal initiatives well under way rather than start from the ground up, and that the solutions it endorses will be practical to adopt and scalable so they're useful for all communities and all situations.
OK, the idea of preventing what are, after all, preventable diseases, might not set your pulse a-pounding in the same way sending a man to the moon once did, but it is a big deal. Really big.