Former CDC director tells Naples crowd U.S. faces health deficit

A former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says she sees striking parallels between the nation’s troubled financial sector and the state of its health care system.

“I believe that our health system is equally at risk of a massive meltdown,” Dr. Julie Gerberding told a crowd of 300 Friday during a Forum Club of Southwest Florida luncheon at the Naples Beach Hotel.

“If we don’t do something drastically different, your grandchildren will be the first generation that doesn’t have a longer life expectancy than their parents.”

Gerberding served as CDC director from July 2002 until President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January.

During her tenure, Gerberding prepared the organization to face bioterrorism, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, the West Nile Virus and other emerging health threats. She also directed a $1.6 billion capital improvement program at the $11 billion agency.

On Friday, Gerberding outlined a bleak picture when discussing the nation’s state of health.

Like the financial sector, health care represents a system that is not well-regulated, that puts trillions of dollars at risk and that is characterized by disparities between haves and have-nots, she said.

Although the U.S. spends far more than any other nation on health care — $2.2 trillion each year — it ranks poorly among nations in benchmarks like infant mortality. The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. 47th in the world in overall health, she said.

That ranking represents a “national health deficit” that even better hospitals and universal health insurance coverage cannot make up, she said.

“This is not just about health,” she said. “It is about economic prosperity and the ability to compete in the global market.”

While many believe the government should ensure more citizens are able to obtain insurance, much of the work needed to make up the deficit will fall on individuals and businesses, Gerberding said.

“Our failure is to recognize that health doesn’t actually happen in the health care delivery system,” she said. “Health happens at home, it happens at school and it happens at the workplace.”

In addition to taking measures to improve one’s personal health, individuals can be leaders within their families and communities.

Business leaders can also take steps to improve the health of their employees by “nudging” them toward healthier lifestyles.

Placing healthy items like salads in a cafeteria’s most prominent areas and making those foods more affordable than foods like pizza work, she said.

All new CDC buildings are now built with central lobby staircases that promote walking rather than elevator riding, she noted.

“That kind of nudging is probably going to be a much more effective way than teaching them that it is bad to be obese, or telling them they shouldn’t smoke,” she said.

Forum Club members were impressed by the half-hour talk.

“I thought she was an outstanding representative from Washington, D.C.,” said John Soggs of Naples. “She knows the big picture but she showed she can focus on what is going on in the hospitals and the community level. That’s rare.”

“She gave us a lot of information that was general and really suited to a lot of people,” said Gene Buehler. “She really knows her stuff but she uses common sense. We need more of that.”

E-mail Pete Bishop at lpbishop@comcast.net

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