152: Health as a Human Right – Public Health Week

Dr. Denise Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Physician General, tells us why health is a human right, as we continue our examination of the themes for this year’s National Public Health Week; Kay Matthews, founder and executive director of the non-profit...

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Dr. Denise Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Physician General, tells us why health is a human right, as we continue our examination of the themes for this year’s National Public Health Week; Kay Matthews, founder and executive director of the non-profit Shades of Blue Project, explains how personal health challenges can quickly become public health problems; HHS has a website offering guidance and resources for responding to a variety of emergencies and crisis; and ASTHO reminds listeners to register for this year’s Public Health Tech Xpo planned for May 10th and 11th.

APHA Webpage: National Public Health Week

HHS.gov Webpage: Countries Experiencing Conflict – Healthcare Preparedness and Response Resources

Website: Shades of Blue Project

ASTHO Public Health Tech Xpo Webpage

ASTHO logo



This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Thursday, April 7th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Our recognition of National Public Health Week continues today with a focus on health as a human right. Pennsylvania physician general Dr. Denise Johnson leads the way in today's morning conversation.

What do we mean when we say health is a human right?


We mean that every individual, no matter who they are, has a right to be able to access the healthcare that they need when they need it. And that shouldn't be limited by their social situation, it shouldn't be limited by their economic status, and it really shouldn't put them in financial hardship just getting the basic health needs met.


How far away do you think we are as a nation from meeting this obligation?


Well, especially during the pandemic, we identified a lot of the long-standing inequities that were there already. I think the pandemic really put a spotlight on them. So, we realized that where you live, your ZIP code, your minority status, your health insurance status, your socio-economic status really had a huge impact on your health and your health outcomes, your ability to access health and the outcomes that you have.

So, certainly we identified a lot of gaps. And so, now our challenge is to make sure, then, that we learn the lessons from those gaps that were clear during the pandemic and make systemic changes to bridge those gaps.


Do you think we've made progress at all during the last two years? Do we have a long way to go?


Well, I believe we have. Specifically for us in the Commonwealth, I think the vaccine rollout was a real good indicator of how we need to proceed; so that, as we rolled out the vaccinations across the Commonwealth, we really tried to collect demographic data so we could see who was getting vaccinated and who was not. And we did more demographic data than just race and ethnicity; so, we also looked at geography and ZIP code, where people were living, and age groups so that we could really parse out the data and see where people were not getting vaccinated. And then, we needed to put systems in place to make sure that we're reaching them.


Thinking about this pursuit of health as a human right in a state or territory, how might someone in a position like yours go about achieving that goal?


Sure. Well, one of the great benefits I think that we've found in the pandemic is that we realized, as state officials, that we were not necessarily the right messengers for each community. In the past, the way that we've delivered healthcare has always been sort of the provider, convenience and efficiency. And we really needed to change the other round and employ local trusted messengers to be able to connect with individuals in communities that we didn't really have good access to.

And so, going forward whenever we're in our planning stages, we need to think who is not being reached by this plan that we're implementing, and why are they not being reached, and how do we need to fix that. I think the pandemic really motivated us to think in that way, and we really need to take those lessons and translate them into all types of healthcare delivery going forward.


Friday's theme: closing the health equity gap. Come back tomorrow for that conversation with South Dakota secretary of health, Joan Adam.


Kay Matthews closes gaps with her Shades of Blue Project, a national nonprofit focused on breaking barriers to maternal mental health. She founded the project and directs the work. Matthews says when people can't get health care, their problems quickly become community health challenges.


You have high numbers of folks having heart attacks or substance abuse use. You know, those kinds of things, typically there is a underlying mental health condition there that is not being addressed or oftentimes overlooked because it's like, "Well, if I'm having a heart attack or I'm having these physical issues, what does that have to do with my mental health?" A lot.

If you're unable to focus, to even like tie into, too, that's where it becomes a public health issue. And there's a lot of money that is poured into physical health, but not so much into mental health. So, that's when it becomes a public health issue.


Read more about the Shades of Blue Project using the link in the show notes.


Also, the war in Ukraine is creating public health challenges on a massive scale. It's an extreme example of the impact a crisis or disaster can have on systems designed to care for people.

HHS has a website with resources for public health teams looking to prepare themselves for unexpected emergencies at home. You can visit the healthcare emergency preparedness information gateway with the link in the show notes.


Finally today, don't forget to hold your seat at the ASTHO Public Health TechXpo planned for May 10th and 11th. Vendors will be online to demonstrate and discuss the latest public health technology. The two-day agenda also includes panel discussions featuring some of the leading voices in public health.

The Xpo website is linked in the show notes.


Before we go, we want to remind you to follow the show—that way you'll never miss a single report. Also, don't forget to recommend the daily on your social media channels.


That'll do it for today's newscast. We're back tomorrow morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

Kay Matthews

Executive Director, Shades of Blue Project

Denise A Johnson MD FACOG FACHE

Physician General, Pennsylvania Department of Health