What This New Funder Collaborative Says About the State of Public Health in the U.S.

“If you can name me one industry outside of public health where data from two years ago makes the news, I’ll buy you dinner.”

So says Brian Castrucci, Chief Program and Strategy Officer at the de Beaumont Foundation, one of the backers of the new BUILD Health Challenge, an initiative that aims to support collaborations to improve health in low-income communities. Among other things, the funders hope to redress the lack of good current data that dogs public health efforts—and infuriates Castrucci. 

Castrucci is a fount of knowledge and passion when it comes to health. I talked to him on a late Thursday afternoon, the week before Thanksgiving, a time when many normal people are weighing the merits of sausage versus chestnuts in their holiday stuffing.

Castrucci spoke with a sound-bite-perfect urgency about the kinds of changes that BUILD Health hopes to foster: ground-level, infrastructural changes in communities suffering from the lack of clean air, good grocery stores, greenspace, andtoo oftenaccess to preventive healthcare. He's talking about the kinds of communities where, for example, chronic disease risks are sky-high—although knowing exactly how high can be hard to say, given the abysmal state of public health data.

“If you look up numbers for diabetes, you’re getting a rate about two years old, that represents a sample with about a 35 percent response rate,” says Castrucci, who studied sociomedical sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and has worked in public health departments in Georgia and Philadelphia. “We’ve put people on the Moon. We go to other planets, we come back, but the best data for diabetes prevalence is two years old and self-reported!”

BUILD Health (the acronym stands for Bold, Upstream, Integrated, Local, Data-driven) is one of those ambitious funder collaboratives that aims to get people out of their silos and make vital connections—across disciplines, sectors, and institutions.  

That's never easy, but there's some real firepower behind this thing: RWJF and Kresge are the other foundation partners, and a giant consulting firm, The Advisory Company, is also in the mix. 

BUILD Health has $7.5 million to spend, and it's seeking collaborative projects that can get at the “upstream” causes of things like asthma, diabetes: access to good food, clean air, safe places to be outside. If those sound like the ingredients of the "culture of health" that RWJF is always talking up, you're exactly right. And BUILD is an example of how health funders are trying to be more savvy in addressing these issues. 

“If you go to your doctor and you want to know your likelihood for cancer, we can get down to your genetic code,” says Castrucci. “But for community health, we are still using blunt measures of disease prevalence in a community. We need to be more accurate, we need to be surgical in how we approach this. We need to change the health curve of this country not just the healthcare curve.”

Funds from BUILD Health will go to up 14 separate community-driven projects, but the collaborative will give more than money to grantees. It will also provide "access to a comprehensive package of technical assistance and support services that will guide them in their planning and implementation efforts." To even be in the running, a collaborative needs to include a hospital, a local health department, and a non-profit community group. 

All this sounds smart and promising, with the obvious caveat that collaborations between large institutions are often difficult. It's one thing to get people around the table to chase a pot of money. It's another to keep them there over time to make real change happen. 

Speaking of chasing the money, the LOI is due January 16th. More information can be found here.