We are living during a time of unprecedented economic growth and scientific and technological progress, while simultaneously confronting the unique and daunting challenges of climate change and wealth disparity. How do we as a community balance these two realities? On one hand, from a historical perspective people are living longer than before, children are less likely to die, and war and violence are at all-time lows, but on the other hand wealth and income inequality means that not everyone benefits equally. Additionally, even during times of success we need to plan for emerging challenges that may fundamentally change our lives with wide-ranging impacts; social, emotional, physical, and environmental.

With community support and collaboration, public health has a pivotal role to play in responding to current and future threats like unaffordable housing, an increase in deaths of despair, climate change, and food insecurity. As San Juan Basin Public Health’s (SJBPH) Director of Public Health Innovation, my responsibility is to work with the community to ensure that the agency is serving all members of this community equitably while taking steps that will allow us to better respond to emerging issues and challenges, using a public health lens.

Responding to community needs by creating innovative programming has been foundational to SJBPH’s recent priorities. Some examples of this include providing farm share produce (CSAs) to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clients this past summer. SJBPH staff have also worked to build relationships with organizations like Good Food Collective, that are focused on increasing food security in the region. Improving access to healthy, local food requires collaboration across many different sectors.

As suicide prevention rose as a community concern in 2017, SJBPH was asked to take a leadership role in addressing the issue. Now two years later, the La Plata County Suicide Prevention Collaborative engages a wide cross-section of local organizations and individuals to create a community-based response to suicide. Based on community input and the foresight of leadership at SJBPH, there is a strong need to continue to provide innovative programming that uses the best available data to respond to future needs.

Due to climate change impacts becoming more apparent we will have to adapt to stressors like air pollution, diseases carried by mosquitoes, food insecurity, mental health and stress-related disorders, temperature extremes, drought, and wildfire. The 416 fire in 2018 gives us a recent example of the kind of challenges our community will face as climate change progresses and demonstrates the direct relationship between climate change and public health. Increasing the capacity of emergency preparedness response and having equity be a core value of emergency planning processes demonstrates the role of innovation. When our forests burn we need to be prepared for compromised air quality conditions with strategies in place to both help those displaced by fire and also to help our neighbors who are not easily able to escape hazardous air quality conditions when they persist over time. When events like the 416 fire happen, we also need to be able to respond to the mental health toll that fire has on a community and consider the lingering emotional toll a depressed economy has on our local business owners. As people are displaced from their homes due to extreme weather events, our community needs to prepare for new patterns of human migration, and the impacts that may have on communicable disease.

There are so many factors that influence a healthy community and individual. With access to healthy food, people visit the doctor less. When a community provides affordable housing, individuals are more likely to maintain stable employment, therefore reducing the deaths of despair that have been rising across the country over the past decade. A clean drinking water system inhibits the spread of disease, allowing us all to enjoy healthy, productive lives. Public health provides direct services to the community like sexual health services and water testing, while also working with others to address the barriers in place that prevent people from enjoying life, such as access to affordable housing or healthy food. Public health innovation is about collaborating and responding to unmet, and even yet-unknown needs by supporting new ways of thinking to support already-established programs and to create new public health programs when necessary, with a special focus on building equitable programs and systems. No threat impacts everyone equally, and with the support and expertise of the community, public health innovation promotes innovative solutions to complex problems.

Adrian Uzunian is the Director of Public Health Innovation at San Juan Basin Public Health.