Words, and especially metaphors, fascinate me. They are powerful and oftentimes unexamined. Take cliff for example. The OED definition of cliff is: “a perpendicular or steep face of rock of considerable height.” Cliffs are both dangerous and exhilarating-seductive. Think of the aptly named Heathcliff (Emily Bronte’s in Wuthering Heights that is, not the rather insipid comic-strip cat). Cliffs represent the edge of the known and comfortable world. Cliffs are good places to gain some perspective.
Cliff, as a metaphor in the health policy world, is used in various ways. First, there is the ‘funding cliff,’ and specifically the current ‘primary care funding cliff,’ also called the ‘community health center funding cliff.’ Community Health Centers across the U.S. are facing a potential federal funding cut of up to %70 this coming fall (for a good and brief article on it, see the Commonwealth Fund’s Washington Health Week in Review, “Health Centers Push for Remedy to Avoid the Funding ‘Cliff,” by John Reichard, 11-3-14). The National Association of Community Health Centers has a policy issues website on the primary care funding cliff with more information and links to policy advocacy that individuals and groups can get involved in. And here is the RCHN Community Health Foundation’s infographic on the primary care funding cliff.
I am a big fan of community health centers (CHCs) and have worked at three different CHCs in the Seattle area over a period of fifteen years. They typically have very passionate, social-justice oriented people working for them, and they emphasize the use of interdisciplinary teams. CHCs provide comprehensive community-based health care for over 25 million people living in poverty, people who are homeless, as well as immigrant/refugee, and migrant farm workers in urban and rural areas throughout the U.S. CHCs are far from the ‘perfect’ model of care–they are high professional burnout workplaces and they often have much more ‘heart’ than ‘head’ (as in sometimes struggling with good leadership/administration). But they are as close to perfect that I’ve experienced in our country. Not surprising to me is the fact that one of our earliest models of CHCs was the Frontier Nursing Service, started by nurse midwife Mary Breckinridge in 1925 (and still in existence) to provide primary health care in an impoverished rural area of Kentucky.
But to return to the cliff metaphor, a second and important use of ‘cliff’ in the health policy arena is Dr. Camara Jones‘ ‘Cliff Analogy’ framework for levels of health prevention at a population level. Dr. Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist, and currently Research Director on social determinants of health and equity at the Centers for Disease Control. She distills down and illustrates complex health policy/health systems issues through the use of stories and metaphor–the Gardener’s Tale for levels of racism, and the Cliff Analogy for the social determinants of health and of health equity.
In a recent journal article/commentary, Dr. Jones states, “The social determinants of health equity differ from the social determinants of health. While the social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age, the social determinants of equity are systems of power. (…) The social determinants of equity govern the distribution of resources and populations through decision-making structures, practices, norms, and values, and too often operate as social determinants of in-equity by differentially distributing resources and populations.” (“Systems of Power, Axes of Inequity” in Medical Care, October 2014, 52(10): S71-S75). In a graphic depiction of these concepts included in her ‘Cliff Analogy,” she shows that the cliff is not a flat, 2-dimensional cliff (as in the infographic above), but is 3-dimensional–differing in how resources, populations, (and, I would add, even the cliff’s physical contours/environment) are distributed.
So on this official President’s Day in the U.S., or Washington’s Birthday for all federal workers, take some time away from the shoe and cars sales and school holiday to consider what actions you can take to make our communities healthier and more equitable places.