News & Announcements

State Health Officials Eye New Approach to Chronic Disease Prevention

By: Andrew Kitchenman – NJ Spotlight

Five-year plan aims to involve private-sector partners to fight “winnable battles”

NJ Commissioner of Health Mary O’Dowd (left), with Diane Litterer, executive director of the New Jersey Prevention Network, Ruth Perry, director of the Trenton Health Team, and Kim Fortunato, director of the childhood obesity and hunger program at Campbell Soup.

State officials aim to take a more comprehensive, unified approach to trying to reduce chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as part of a new five-year plan announced yesterday.

The plan, called Partnering for a Healthy New Jersey, would combine existing programs that target different diseases, since these maladies are affected by many of the same risk factors, such as poverty.

The plan focuses on strategies to prevent disease and increase residents’ health and wellness as part of current programs to treat diseases. By involving hospitals, insurers, healthcare foundations, and community organizations in this work, state officials are looking to improve and better coordinate these programs.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd noted that seven of the top 10 causes of death in New Jersey are chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and kidney disease. She emphasized that public health efforts can reduce the risks of several of these problems.

O’Dowd cited a Milken Institute study that the costs from chronic disease in the state would grow from $39 billion in 2003 to $114.8 billion in 2023. Most of the increase is due to lost productivity among workers, which is expected to climb from $31.5 billion in 2003 to $96.3 billion in 2023.

“Choosing a different path than the one that we’re on, and engaging in more of a focus and strategy of prevention and wellness, could actually reduce that projected increase in cost by 30 percent,” O’Dowd said. “That is one of our fundamental goals.”

O’Dowd noted that factors like smoking and not having access to healthy food and healthcare are risks that accumulate over the course of a person’s life and increase the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases. Alternatively, being physically active or having a good education or a supportive family environment can reduce these risks over time.

This suggests that reducing these risk factors will lead to reductions in a wide range of chronic diseases, supporting the case for breaking down the “silos” that separate different disease reduction programs.

Racial and Ethnic Factors

In addition, there are significantly different rates of diseases like diabetes in different racial and ethnic groups in the state. “Understanding the dynamics of your community and population, and how these disparities may impact it, is very important in developing a program that’s going to have a meaningful impact,” O’Dowd said in announcing the state plan yesterday at a gathering of healthcare leaders at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

There are seven “winnable battles” that Partnering for Health New Jersey will focus on, according to O’Dowd: efforts to increase physical activities; improve nutrition; eliminate tobacco use; improve environmental health; enable self management; increase early detection; and improve access to quality healthcare.

The chronic disease reduction plan, which is built on a $9.4 million federal grant, will draw on several existing programs, including one to improve residents’ health by 2020 — Shaping NJ, which focuses on obesity prevention. Other current programs include a change in hospital funding that focuses on disease reduction; regional healthcare coordination efforts; and a state effort to improve birth outcomes.

The plan aims to achieve its goals by relying on four primary approaches: improving public access to data on diseases and related risk factors; encouraging healthy behaviors, such as requiring hospitals to develop policies that support breastfeeding; bringing prevention efforts into the healthcare delivery system, such as working to improve residents’ health before they develop chronic diseases; and building links between community organizations and providers, so that residents are referred to the right disease-reduction programs.

“This is a cultural change for the department as much as it a cultural change for our healthcare system,”” O’Dowd said of plan. She added that the success of the effort would depend on the participation of other healthcare stakeholders, such as the leaders of various organizations that were in attendance yesterday. State officials plan to reconvene the group within three months to gather their ideas for the coming years.
Participants in a panel discussion held after the announcement expressed enthusiasm for the plan.

Bill Lovett, executive director of the YMCA State Alliance, linked the approach to a broader national effort to draw on partnerships between organizations to reduce chronic diseases.

Diane Litterer, executive director of the New Jersey Prevention Network, noted that her organization has been working at the county and local level to encourage tobacco-free environments and increase residents’ physical activity and healthy eating. Litterer noted the importance of partnerships in this effort, adding that groups that wanted public park improvement found common ground with anti-smoking activists who wanted smoke-free parks and public-safety advocates who wanted improved lighting to increase access in some parks.

Kim Fortunato, director of the childhood obesity and hunger program at Camden-based Campbell Soup Inc., has been involved in an effort to increase the amount of healthy food available in Camden neighborhoods. She expressed an interest in the state plan, saying that Campbell Soup aims to be a “catalytic donor for social change.”

Dr. Ruth Perry, director of the Trenton Health Team, noted the success that all of these organizations have had in building partnerships at the local level, a step that will be essential to successfully executing the state plan.

Cooper Health System President and CEO John Sheridan noted his system’s effort to join with other providers in Camden to improve residents’ health and said he was impressed with O’Dowd’s plan to increase health partnerships across the state to reduce chronic diseases.
“I think it’s a great idea – we know as a hospital we need to move away from just treatment and move toward prevention and wellness,” Sheridan said.

About the Trenton Health Team
Trenton Health Team (THT) is an alliance of the city’s major providers of healthcare services including Capital Health, St. Francis Medical Center, Henry J. Austin Health Center and the city’s Health Department. In collaboration with residents and the city’s active social services network, THT is developing an integrated healthcare delivery system to transform the city’s fragmented primary care system and restore health to the city. THT aims to make Trenton the healthiest city in the state. Support for the Trenton Health Team was provided in part by a grant from The Nicholson Foundation. For more information, visit