Wen, a visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said direct change on a local level as advocacy for the people who need it is vital.
“There is no face of public health,” she said. “Public health works when no one knows it’s working. There is the face of someone who’s gotten food poisoning. But what’s the face of someone who could have gotten food poisoning?”
In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Wen shared her thoughts on five public health topics that she thinks could be covered a lot more from a local or state perspective; she also gave possible angles for those stories. The topics included opioids, maternal health, the importance of prevention, the divide between national rhetoric and local action, and the aspects of health care that are somehow seen as separate from health care (such as mental health, dental care, reproductive care).
Wen was previously a public health official in Baltimore, where she used a three-pillar approach of focusing on saving lives, getting people into treatment and changing the culture around how addiction is perceived. One story reporters should be tracking: the distribution of opioid settlement money.
“We can’t approach addiction as a criminal justice issue when it should be approached from a public health angle,” she said. “We have to follow the evidence.”
To measure the success of health programs from different states, Wen said reporters should divide it into short-term and long-term effects.
Wen said the national issues in public health happening now started locally; beyond that, the issues that are important to local communities can make for interesting comparisons across the country.
“What is it that we’re actually seeing on the ground, and what are people actually worried about?” she said.
Wen provided the example of West Virginia needle-exchange program being shut down, which could be contrasted with the thriving Baltimore and Philadelphia needle-exchange programs.
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