Ursula Bauer, PhD.

Ursula Bauer, PhD.

If you are sick and not feeling well, Dr. Ursula Bauer can’t do anything to make you better. But she IS doing a lot to help shape the policies and programs that may keep you from getting sick in the first place.

Short of the Surgeon General, there’s almost no one in government more interested — or more influential — in helping create a culture of health in the US.

As part of CoastAlaska’s ongoing series on Health, KCAW’s Robert Woolsey met with Bauer to learn how we’re making ourselves unwell, and what to do about it.

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Ursula Bauer is head of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention, at the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. She was in Sitka recently to visit CDC-funded prevention programs at SEARHC like Women’s Health, cancer screening, tobacco cessation, and diabetes prevention. The Centers for Disease Control has spent about $2.4 million trying to keep Southeast Alaskans well.

Bauer is frustrated that we’ve come to define ourselves as a set risk factors — diseases waiting to happen. She’d like to frame the conversation about health around people, rather than around disease.

“People want to be in control of their health. They might not talk about health specifically, but they want a quality of life. They want to live to see their grandchildren grow up. They want to be productive members of their community. The don’t think about that in terms of diabetes or tobacco use or nutrition, but those things — or avoiding those things — are going to get them the quality of life that they want.”

Bauer is not a medical doctor. She has a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from Yale, as well as a Master’s Degree in Public Health. She says that the public health system in the US has had some amazing successes in the past — potable water, sanitation, pasteurization, and food safety — which have given us more control of our lives. But lately, just as medicine has become more specialized, tackling public health issues has also become more fragmented.

Bauer says it’s time again to step back and look at problems holistically.

“What we see is that in so many places, our communities are designed for disease.”

She means education, transportation, housing, agriculture, the justice system, clinical medicine — you name it — they’ve all evolved in ways that do not support the well being of individuals and their communities.

When Bauer makes her case for the idea that we’re our own worst enemies, she doesn’t have to go far for evidence.

“I like to say that if a space alien came down to any place in our country, it would think that we support obesity as our highest value. The ready availability of fast foods, the soda pop within an arm’s reach of every American, the driving culture, the lack of opportunity for physical activity.”

Bauer says the obesity epidemic didn’t happen overnight — it’s been in the works for about 30 years. But just as we created the problem, we can end it. This is where Bauer and the CDC are putting some money and effort at the moment: Community Transformation grants, in Southeast and around the country. Small amounts of funding — from $5,000 – 25,000 — to promote PE programs in school, or to steer us toward better eating, or to promote any number of ways to help us live better together.

“And I think more and more communities are kind of stopping and saying, Wait a minute — who decided that there should be a fast food restaurant within 4-minutes of every American home? Is that a value that my community wants, or do we want a different kind of value?”

The CDC’s Community Transformation grants are a five-year program, expected to reach 120 million Americans. About one in every three of us.