Most conversations about public health don’t start with a history lesson on the riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Or an overview of home ownership and mortgage rates in the U.S. from 1980 to the present. Or an analysis of consumer spending in Asia versus the U.S. But maybe they should.
Mike Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute and Chairman of FasterCures, joined Lynn Goldman, dean of the GW School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City to discuss the future of public health and national prosperity with an audience of more than 650 GW alumni, parents, and friends. The program began with Chairman of the GW Board of Trustees Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, welcoming guests and underlining the importance of the GW community in the New York metro area, which is more than 17,000 strong and the largest population of GW alumni outside of the D.C. area.
President Steven Knapp introduced the speakers for the evening, saying the discussion was part of an ongoing dialogue on campus on the topic of global public health. “Chronic diseases are now encroaching on the lives of our children and threatening social and economic progress around the world. Tonight’s discussion will provide an example of how we and our partners are addressing those issues.”
First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius both visited campus earlier this year to advocate for preventive health care worldwide.
Milken began his presentation at a macro level, zooming the lens out from the issues of obesity and chronic diseases to the importance of capital markets in a global economy. In the summer of 1965, Milken was home in Los Angeles from his first year at UC Berkeley and witnessed the Watts riots. He realized then that the issue was about more than race. It was about “access to capital as a civil right – a chance to succeed based on your ability, not background.”
That chance came for many beginning in 1974, when the capital markets began to displace banks as a source of funding for small and medium businesses. However, in the 1980s, new laws began distorting the utility curve for many middle-class Americans, and the American Dream became increasingly associated with home ownership. Today, nearly 50 percent of U.S. consumer dollars go toward housing and transportation, Milken said. That is 25 times the number of dollars spent on supplemental education, which takes only 2 percent of consumer spending. Asia, in contrast, allocates 15 percent of its consumer spending to tutoring and after-school education services. This matters because, according to Milken, education builds human capital, the world’s largest asset class.
“To invest in human capital, countries need to increase education and practical skills, import people with skills, and/or improve health and quality of life.”
Quality of life has direct implications on the global economy: Over the past two centuries, as much as 50 percent of all economic growth can be traced to advances in health. And yet more than 90 percent of health spending is dedicated to treatment, versus less than 10 percent spent on research and prevention combined.
To illustrate this point, Milken shared that his father had polio, which in the early 1950s was an epidemic in America: “No one was immune.” In 1955, Jonas Salk announced the polio vaccine, effectively saving the U.S. nearly $1 trillion, avoiding 160,000 deaths, and preventing 1 million cases.
According to Milken, eradicating chronic diseases through research and prevention is where the United States and global health organizations need to focus money and effort. Obesity in America has ballooned over the past 20 years. In 1991, only four states had obesity prevalence over 15 percent. Today, most states are above 25 percent. Obesity is linked to many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and depression, among others. From an economic standpoint, Milken noted that “failure to address chronic diseases adequately costs the U.S. more than $1 trillion annually.”
Dr. Goldman joined Milken on stage and reiterated the importance of prevention and wellness in order to keep people healthy for as long as possible. She highlighted the work SPHHS is doing both locally – through improved bike share and wellness programs in D.C. – and at a national level, citing research SPHHS has conducted that offers activity guidelines for children and families struggling with obesity. The two also discussed the lowered health care costs that would result from significant weight loss nationwide.
And at the center of these conversations guiding global economic and health decisions is GW. Major public and private health organizations are convening at SPHHS and collaborating to solve the biggest issues of our day.
“The country’s commitment to the biosciences brought people to Washington to change the world. And now it’s time to focus that commitment on GW,” said Milken.