Going for Gold
This summer’s Olympics were an awesome spectacle. World records were broken, medals were doled out, and dreams came true for some of the best athletes on the planet. The nation’s medal count was impressive – 36 gold, 38 silver, and 36 bronze medals were bestowed upon U.S. athletes – the most medals awarded the United States since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. New facilities were built in record time and new technologies were introduced to many events including the ultra-slippery swimming gear which may have made the difference in swimmers reaching some of the fastest speeds in history. Television coverage of the events was ubiquitous and included a daily tally of how many medals had been awarded to the United States broadcasted on most major news networks. For two solid weeks it seemed like nothing else in the world mattered but how many medals our fellow Americans would bring home at the end of the Games and how many records they would break. And boy did they make us proud.
Given our success at the Beijing Olympics, I couldn’t help but ponder what would happen if the United States competed in a maternal and child health Olympics. Would our medal count compare? Unfortunately, it wouldn’t. Our only gold medal would be in the health care spending competition – the United States spends more on health care than any other nation in the world – and is that really the event in which we’d want to win our one gold medal? America may beat some developing countries in most events but we wouldn’t even qualify in reducing infant mortality and maternal mortality, or increasing breast-feeding past six months when competing against industrialized countries. Investments in the facilities and technologies supporting our MCH systems pale in comparison to Beijing's new aquatics “Cube” and “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the money and time spent developing the LZR swimsuit and ultra-fast running shoes. Television coverage of the MCH Olympics, if there was any at all, would broadcast medal ceremonies featuring the Japanese, Finnish, and Swedish national anthems but not our Star Spangled Banner. At the end of the Games our MCH Olympians would not come home to fanfare and celebrity, but rather to pink slips, budget cuts and hiring freezes in state MCH programs. Certainly the zest and zeal, commitment and sportsmanship displayed by our MCH team would carry them far. But without the coaches, training programs, world-class facilities, systems-building, and national leadership needed to be the best — we would never get to gold.
This issue of Pulse highlights the work we need to do to support and train our MCH Olympians, specifically our team working on the troubling issue of infant mortality. What if we shared a comparable investment of the time, money, and spirit for our real Olympians with these MCH champions? Could we attract experts from around the world to help us reach gold in MCH? Could we have a 24-hour news ticker displaying health status indicators along the bottom of CNN raising awareness of how much we have done, and how much we have to do, to improve health in America? I can see it now: infant mortality in green letters with an accompanying arrow pointing down, breastfeeding rates in green text with an arrow pointing up. Could we put the zeal we have for being the best of all nations in swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and yes even beach volleyball, into being the best in the world in the health of our mothers, children and families? Could we set a world’s record for the fastest drops in childhood obesity rates and teen pregnancy – two issues with rates going in the wrong direction?
For a nation that is the best in the world in so many things why do we accept less than even a bronze medal when compared to our peer countries in maternal and child health? We can and should do better. The fact that the United States ranks 19th in infant mortality compared to select industrialized countries, and 32nd worldwide compared to all nations in the world should be cause enough for an Olympic-like effort to improve maternal and child health outcomes nationwide. Our team trains hard everyday but we lack a comparable investment in the systems needed to bring MCH to the next level. That’s why AMCHP is working hard not only to support our members’ work as “MCH Olympians” but also advocating for an Olympic-like effort to build states’ capacity to support healthy children, families and communities. I hope you’ll join us as we “go for gold” together.