Prevent More to Treat Less: Bringing Advocacy Back to Health Promotion

By Andrea Bodkin, Health Promotion Specialist

This week I’m attending the Prevent More to Treat Less Conference. The conference is jointly presented by the Association of Ontario Health Centres and alPHa, along with a number of provincial partners including Health Nexus.

Prevent More to Treat Less: Bringing Advocacy Back to Health Promotion The conference brings together public health and primary health for, as the title suggests, conversation around how we can work together to prevent disease and promote health.

The afternoon of Day One was dedicated to one if the founding principles of health promotion: advocacy. Despite its inclusion in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, the word (if not the act of) advocacy can be a controversial one, one which raises the anxiety levels of many a professional! Tensions with funders and organizational mandates, fears of negative repercussions are just a few of the things that can keep health promoters away from advocating. We call it many other things: enthusiastically educating, influencing decision-makers etc etc. Dr Michael Rachlis presented the following definition: "the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending". Well, that sounds like health promotion!

I was happy to see that the conference organizers did not shy away from the act- or the word- advocacy. A lively afternoon panel, called “The Art of Advocacy” was moderated by Dr Roasana Pellizzari and featured Dr Ryan Meili, Trish Hennessey and Elinor Caplan. The conversation and discussion was so rich that I would need at least ten blog posts to accurately capture it, so I thought that I would share one particular theme that jumped out at me: the importance of storytelling.

Now, this is not a new concept in policy or advocacy work. Many of us in the field have understood that storytelling can be an important tool. One thing that Elinor shared that really resonated for me, is that we in the health field really need to spend a lot of time explaining what health is. Many people think that health is health care. We must first explain what health is, Elinor said, so that we can talk about what influences health. Trish Henessey added that the 14 social determinants of health are 14 stories to tell. Dr Meili suggested that we not only have to have the right stories to tell, but we must have the right people telling them. “You wouldn’t send me, a social justice minded family doctor” suggested Dr Meili “to talk to the Chamber of Commerce”.

The panelists told stories of a single mom whose minimum wage job did not give her medical benefits: she quit her job to go on welfare to receive the benefits to buy glasses for her child. A conference delegate told me yesterday afternoon that a county in Southwestern Ontario spent half a million dollars on ER visits for emergency dental visits for those with no medical benefits.

These are the stories that wait to be told. These are the stories that can be told to illustrate why system change is needed so that we can prevent more to treat less. “The best story teller” said Trish Hennessey, quoting Tommy Douglas, “wins”.

As I finished this blog post, Day Two of the conference is just about to start. Stay tuned for my next blog post!