University Leaders Discuss Wellness, Higher Education at Milken Institute Global Conference

Panels feature President Steven Knapp, Dean Lynn R. Goldman and Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness Director William Dietz.

Milken Institute Global Conference
Troyen Brennan, executive vice president and chief medical officer, CVS Caremark; Mike Milken, Milken Institute chairman; Thomas Frieden, director of U.S. CDC; Lynn Goldman, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Public Health (Photo credit: Milken Institute)
April 30, 2014

Three leaders from the George Washington University participated in panels at the 17th annual Milken Institute Global Conference held in Los Angeles this week: George Washington President Steven Knapp, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Public Health Lynn R. Goldman and William H. Dietz, director of the newly created Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

They were in good company, joining more than 3,000 international leaders in business, finance, government, public policy, academia, philanthropy, law, science, news media and more. This year’s five-day conference features a wide range of speakers, including actor Sean Penn, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, recording artist Akon and Freddie Mac CEO Donald Layton, among many others.

The event has been described as “an executive MBA program, a 360-degree view of the world and—less artfully—like drinking from a fire hose,” according to the conference’s program book. Its goal is to drive intellectual curiosity and to move capital, policy and momentum to realistic solutions.

The Milken Institute SPH, which now shares the nonpartisan think-tank’s namesake, received $40 million from the Milken Institute earlier this year to support new and ongoing research and scholarships.

The three representatives from GW who spoke at the conference offered their insight on topics in health and wellness as well as the affordability and future of higher education. Here are some highlights from those discussions: 

Prevention and Wellness: The Keys to a Healthier, More Prosperous Society

The vast majority of health dollars go toward treatment, which is the least effective approach to reducing the cost of health care. A simpler solution is to prevent people from getting ill in the first place. In this panel, featuring Dr. Goldman and moderated by Milken Institute Chairman Mike Milken, six panelists discussed some of the solutions for creating a healthier society.

Dr. Goldman emphasized the need for research directed toward prevention, specifically in the area of antibiotics. She said there is a growing problem of pathogen resistance to these microorganism-killing medicines. 

“This is a huge problem. I’d hate to see us go back to the 1930s, when we can’t treat infections,” she said.

Another area of research that is especially critical for this generation and where there is “tremendous disparity” is smoking prevention. She said research shows that while there are “social networks” in which people continue to smoke, many of those people tend to be less educated and less wealthy. Dr. Goldman thinks it is necessary to find ways to reach out to those networks specifically, in order to create a smoke-free society.

“We can’t expect that those same messages that have resulted in the reductions of smoking that we’ve seen to date are going to work for the people who continue to smoke,” she said.

And finally, on the topic of childhood obesity, Dr. Goldman said it is essential to review the evidence for preventing this growing epidemic in a “very systematic fashion,” to best understand the strategies that are and are not working and move those strategies into communities.

“This is an emerging public health crisis, with the first generation of children in a century who will be less healthy than we are if we don’t do something about this,” Dr. Goldman said.

Thanks to a $30 million donation from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation, the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center—led by Dr. Dietz—will accelerate the Milken Institute SPH’s search for solutions to obesity. Dr. Dietz is an expert consultant on obesity, nutrition and physical fitness. With his leadership, the Milken Institute SPH will strive to develop innovative strategies to fight the urgent battle against obesity, Dr. Goldman said during her State of the School address in March.

Bridging the College Gap: Preparing Low-Income Students to Succeed

Dr. Knapp joined a panel of nonprofit leaders and education experts to discuss how to bridge the gap between wealthy and low-income students who enroll in and graduate from four-year universities.

In January, Dr. Knapp and more than 100 college presidents attended a college opportunity summit at the White House, hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, which focused on how to increase accessibility and affordability for low-income students.

Dr. Knapp said that the summit inspired him to create a “much stronger, more coherent and more strategic focus” on a range of initiatives that have evolved at GW over the years. He pointed to the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship program, an  agreement between the GW School of Nursing and community colleges in the commonwealth of Virginia, the university’s fixed tuition promise and ongoing outreach to veterans as examples of some of those strategies.

However, Dr. Knapp said during the panel discussion, there has been an increasing focus on recruiting low-income students to universities, without a strong enough emphasis on the intersection of access and success. A slide during his panel discussion showed that the highest-achieving low-income students graduate roughly at the same rate as the lowest-achieving higher-income students.

“We’ve tended to focus either on preparation in high school or on ways of attracting and recruiting students, but we haven’t been as focused as we should be, I think, on all the systems that need to be in place to support students once they get there,” he said.

Dr. Knapp said that in higher education there is largely a focus on inputs rather outputs, and while there are an overwhelming number of “best practices” for attracting and ensuring success for low-income students, there are no mechanisms in place to measure which of those practices are actually most effective.

“How do you actually establish any kind of model and then have the capacity to scale it?” he asked.

The Business Case for Wellness: Is a Wellness Dollar Worth More than a Treatment Dollar?

Sumner M. Redstone Global Center Director Dr. Dietz addressed the issues and opportunities associated with companies that invest in wellness and change behavior to bolster health during a panel discussion with business and university leaders.

Prior to Dr. Dietz’s appointment at GW, he served for 15 years as the director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Sumner M. Redstone Global Center Director William Dietz

He said that having a policy-driven, environmental focus around healthy habits, rather than a personal focus, made a big difference in his own workplace.

“Early on in our efforts, we thought about how we could change the environment at the CDC, since we were a model health agency,” he said.

First, his CDC site became a smoke-free campus, which meant cigarette huts were replaced with bike racks. That led to a policy change, in which the CDC was only allowed to hold meetings in cities with smoke-free ordinances.

“That sent a message to the country about what our expectations were for health,” Dr. Dietz said.

Next, a “healthy food at meetings” policy was implemented, and eventually, a procurement policy at the CDC was developed that specified that healthy products had to be sold, prepared and advertised in CDC cafeterias.

Tangible benefits of worksite wellness include reduced absenteeism, increased safety in the worksite, less employee turnover and higher productivity, Dr. Dietz said. And the wellness policies implemented at the CDC were virtually no cost.

Dr. Knapp also participated in an informal discussion, moderated by Milken Institute President Paul Iriving, about the “Upside of Aging.”

In October, Dr. Knapp was sworn in as the co-chair of the D.C. Age-Friendly Task Force. The task force is intended to help the city prepare for two global demographic trends: increasing urbanization and the rapid aging of urban populations. At the Milken Institute conference, Dr. Knapp and a panel of speakers talked about society’s changing view of aging.

Finally, Dr. Dietz offered his views during a panel titled, “Creating a Demand for Healthier Food Options.”