State Health Commissioner Talks Prevention

By MICHAEL WADDELL

The School of Public Health at the University of Memphis on Tuesday, Jan. 15, welcomed Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehner and his health policy team to the Fishbowl Room inside the FedEx Institute of Technology for a “town hall” discussion of public health and economic issues that affect our community.

Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehner was in Memphis this week to discuss health issues. 

(Photo Courtesy of Michael Waddell)

The session, titled “Public Health is Everybody’s Business,” was led by Dr. Marian Levy, associate professor and assistant dean of students & public health practice, and Dr. Lisa M. Klesges, dean of the U of M School of Public Health.

More than 60 attendees braved the icy weather outside, including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a variety of prominent area health care and business professionals, and university faculty and grad students.

Dreyzehner talked to the group about the overall lack of physical activity in the state and how sedentary lifestyles can negatively impact health.

“If you look at the rankings, that is the area that we are currently as a state, relative to other states, doing the worst. We are ranked 48th,” said Dreyzehner, a former practicing physician and former flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force. “Two-thirds of us in our state are overweight or obese, and that is not helping with our (patient) outcomes.”

He also pointed out that there are still 1.1 million adult smokers in Tennessee.

“Tennesseans are still smoking too much, no question about that. Tennesseans are spending well more on cigarettes than is spent on the entire public health enterprise,” Dreyzehner said. “At 23 percent of the adult population, that is another area where we really need to see the situation improve.”

Another focal point of the presentation was the epidemic of substance abuse, particularly with prescription drugs. During 2011, an estimated 1,062 people died of drug overdose in Tennessee, more than double the yearly numbers from the early 1990s.

“With more than 8,000 Tennesseans dying in the past 10 years from drug overdose, this is unacceptable,” Dreyzehner said. “This just represents an incredible loss of people who are important to their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and their children.”

“Two-thirds of us in our state are overweight or obese, and that is not helping with our (patient) outcomes.”

–Dr. John Dreyzehner

Diseases of behavioral excess are heavily on Dreyzehner’s radar as controllable things that are contributing to morbidity and mortality.

The majority of health care spending is for secondary and tertiary treatment, and Dreyzehner wants to see more used for primary prevention.

“When you think about our current health care spending – about 18 percent of gross domestic product or $2.6 trillion of an economy of about $14 trillion in U.S. – almost all of that money is being spent on the treatment arm, or secondary and tertiary prevention,” said Dreyzehner, who sees very little spent on real prevention. “What I think we need to focus on as a Department of Health and as a public health enterprise is that behavioral and personal choice piece, and physical activity sits in that realm.”

Last year Tennessee ranked 17th in population but was 39th overall for health care, according to statistics from the United Health Foundation.

“In 2008 we were at a low of 48th, but we have marched steadily upward to our present rank of 39th,” said Dreyzehner, who took comments and suggestions from area professionals and students after he spoke.

Many touted the strides Memphis has made thanks to efforts from the Memphis City Schools, Healthy Memphis Common Table, the Shelby County Breastfeeding Coalition, the Memphis-Shelby County Metro Health Care Department and a bevy of other area health care organizations.

The suggestions for improvement from the think tank included finding ways to provide healthier food options and fewer fast food restaurants in low-income areas of the city, and examining options to provide more parks and open spaces to encourage more regular physical activity.

“Health and prosperity is a cyclical idea where we can do economic development and neighborhood development to lead to better health outcomes, and healthier people obviously means a healthier workforce,” said Klesges, who hopes the university’s School of Public Health will be a joint partner under the Memphis Research Consortium umbrella for the new proposed Center for Excellence in Childhood Obesity. “We will look at primary prevention and some of epigenetics and research behind childhood obesity. The more we can do in public health to help focus on primary prevention will help turn the tide on where we are spending our money.”