What’s ailing America?

VCU community-engaged research expert participates in Congressional briefing

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Steven Woolf, M.D., professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health in the Virginia Commonwealth UniversitySchool of Medicine, was one of four featured speakers on Capitol Hill this week discussing, “What’s Ailing America?”

The Congressional briefing focused on the recent National Research Council and Institute of Medicine’s report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Woolf chaired the panel that wrote the report.

On average, Americans die sooner and experience higher rates of disease and injury than people in other high-income countries, according to the report. It also found that this health disadvantage exists at all ages from birth to age 75 and that even advantaged Americans, those who have health insurance, college educations, higher incomes and healthy behaviors, appear to be sicker than their peers in other rich nations.

The report was the first comprehensive look at multiple diseases, injuries and behaviors across the entire lifespan, comparing the United States with 16 peer nations. The report found that the United States is at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.

“It’s a tragedy. The most disturbing trend is that American youth are dying earlier than their peers in other countries, and the health of American women is in decline,” said Woolf, who is the director of the VCU Center on Society and Health and co-director of the Community Engagement Core within the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

The briefing, which was sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Health Through Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, was meant to draw attention to the important role of behavioral and social sciences research in explaining the U.S. health disadvantage.

Joining Woolf on the panel of speakers was Janine Clayton, M.D., director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health in the National Institutions of Health (NIH); Robert Kaplan, Ph.D., director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the NIH; and moderator Thomas Plewes, director of the Committee on Population of the National Academy of Sciences.

In front of approximately 50 audience members gathered in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., the panel discussed the report and research recommendations as well as speculated about ways the NIH and other public health agencies might respond to the report’s findings.

“This was an important briefing because it carried the message to Congress that the research to solve the U.S. health disadvantage will not occur exclusively in laboratories or teaching hospitals,” Woolf said. “We need to understand the factors in the daily lives of Americans that are compromising our health and causing the country to lose pace with other countries.”

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