Health and health care have reached a pivotal point in the United States. For generations, Americans’ health has been unequally influenced by income, education, ethnicity, and where they live. Health care systems have operated largely apart from each other and from community life. The definition of health has been not needing to seek health care rather than a recognition that all aspects of people’s lives—their work, families, and communities—should support active and healthy living.

Today, however, the world is changing, and the research frameworks and academic disciplines we draw on to train new researchers must change as well. This requires new skills and perspectives to inform the evolution of public health systems and services research, some of which are presented in articles in this special issue. A growing number of communities, regions, and states are working to redefine what it means to get and stay healthy by addressing social and physical spaces and the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play—the social, environmental, and economic determinants of health. Demographics are shifting, especially in terms of the US population’s age, ethnic diversity, and education levels. The requirements of federal health care reform are being implemented in very different ways across the nation. However, it is clear that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act1 is changing who has access to care, how care is paid for and delivered, and how patients and providers interact. Coordinated efforts to promote wellness and prevent diseases are proliferating among a diverse set of stakeholders, including organizations that are traditionally non–health focused. And “big data”—large, varied data sets that are available in real or almost-real time—make it possible to analyze health patterns in unprecedented ways to gain a clearer picture of the actionable determinants, trends, and outcomes of societal health and well-being.

These developments in health and in society present a window of opportunity for real societal transformation and an imperative for researchers to match their skill sets and the focus of their studies to assist a broader understanding of the impacts and challenges of this transformation. There is a chance to disrupt the status quo; eliminate health disparities based on the social, environmental, and economic determinants of health and well-being; and catalyze a national movement that demands and supports a widely shared, multifaceted vision for a culture of health to replace the siloed approach to health and health care. Public health systems and services research is well positioned to broaden the scope and play a leading role in building the evidence base to guide the implementation of this movement.

In its annual message, Building a Culture of Health,2 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation proposes a new vision that addresses what all Americans can do to improve collective well-being. We intend to help build a national movement to create a culture of health that enables all members of our diverse society to lead healthy lives, now and for generations to come.

The 10 principles underlying our vision for a culture of health suggest a model for population-level health that can achieve the long-term desired outcomes for health and health systems. Our goal in clustering the 10 principles into dimensions that can be measured and showing how they relate to each other is to provide an integrated perspective on what it takes to achieve population-level health and well-being. We believe that this action model also suggests important areas to further develop and test proof of concept through new research.

Four of the foundation’s 10 culture-of-health principles describe long-term outcomes for the nation’s health and health care systems:

Optimal health and well-being flourish across geographic, demographic, and social sectors;

Everyone has access to affordable, high-quality health care;

No one is excluded; and

The economy is less burdened by health care spending.

These outcomes encompass the improvements in health that the nation has long sought to attain. They also explicitly state a desire to attain better health as the World Health Organization3 defined it: a state of complete emotional, social, and physical well-being. We would add to this definition that resilience, adaptation, and attaining the highest level of well-being that is achievable is the real goal. The outcomes give special attention to equity and social justice—not to merely describe the health disparities that exist in society but to eliminate them. Research that improves our understanding of how we close these gaps and change the odds for achieving healthy lives for marginalized populations is sorely needed.

The remaining six principles fall into four action dimensions that are farther upstream in the sequence of change (Figure 1).

This area of work focuses on actions that set the context for widespread dialogue about and understanding of a culture of health. We prioritize building a shared value of health because individuals must view health as a priority. We prioritize social cohesion because, in addition to valuing health, individuals must also feel a sense of community and believe they can be engaged members of the community to improve population health. Without a shared sense that they are all in this together, it’s hard to convince people that good health for all is as important as health care for those who are ill.

The conceptual base for this action dimension rests on research and practice evidence in social network theory, community resilience, well-being science, and asset-based community development. In this dimension, we intend to better understand the degree to which health is a shared value among individuals and the extent to which individuals feel a sense of interdependence with each other.

This area of work seeks to change approaches and processes so that traditional health delivery settings are connected with the community settings that influence residents’ health (e.g., neighborhoods, schools, and businesses) so that all organizations’ assets, policies, and practices (1) promote the health and health care of entire populations, (2) promote health and health care equally, (3) are aligned across sectors, and (4) operate together rather than in isolation. The nation’s health problems are so pervasive, the solutions are so complex and costly, and the resources for addressing them are so fragmented that no single sector can achieve large-scale, sustainable results on its own.

The conceptual and research base for this dimension is studies of effective cross-sector partnerships among hospitals and other health care institutions, public health agencies and providers, health care payers and consumers, education, government, business, and community-based organizations that improve local well-being. We intend to focus on the increasing prevalence of innovative partnerships and their impact on improving the social, cultural, and environmental determinants of health and reducing health disparities.

This area of work focuses specifically on improving well-being and, correspondingly, eliminating disparities in health so that the zip code in which one lives does not increase one’s likelihood of experiencing poor health outcomes. In a strong market economy such as that of the United States, poverty and economic marginality often lead to inequity in health and health care.

This work addresses policies and practices that advance healthy environments within and across populations. At the individual and family levels, this action dimension aims to ensure that all people have equal opportunity to live in homes that are safe from social threats such as violence and environmental threats such as lead paint, poor air quality, blight, and general disrepair and in neighborhoods that offer access to nutritious and affordable food, recreational facilities, elements that encourage active transport (e.g., sidewalks, bike trails, pedestrian crosswalks), and healthy school environments.

Decades of epidemiological and population health science research have documented growing health disparities based on the social determinants of health. We intend to measure and promote the increased prevalence of opportunities for physical activity, healthy food and diet, and healthy environments to eliminate these types of disparities.

This area of work focuses on integrating health care and public health services and systems in (1) improving equitable access to health care that is high quality, efficient, and affordable, and (2) reducing systemic, avoidable barriers to equitable health care. Just as research has documented the growing disparities in health, an equally broad base of research has documented the continuing challenge of access and coverage. By linking preventive services more systematically with medical care, for example, at least some chronic illness can be avoided or postponed. By linking health care and health improvement services to community resources such as community-based organizations and consumer groups, transitions in care can be improved so that individuals avoid hospital readmissions and can better manage chronic illness. By considering patient wishes more systematically and with cultural competence, health care systems can better activate patients to participate in their own care.

The action model for advancing a culture of health will guide the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s grant-making and strategic collaborations. Our new Culture of Health Investigators Award program and the alignment of our public health services and systems research funding with our new strategy will fund new research that will help refine and improve the model. This new research will also expand the evidence base for developing interventions to improve well-being by addressing root causes of poor health outcomes through multisectoral partnerships. Although much of the language in the action model is familiar to public health researchers and practitioners, it will require deeper commitments to stretch disciplinary boundaries and engage with and learn from innovative community-based approaches to improving health. This has implications for approaches to training students and rewarding faculty. It will require those in leadership positions to recognize and seize opportunities for change. It will call for new norms and expectations, knowledge and capacities, and practices and behaviors. It will force hard choices about how to allocate limited resources in new ways. And it will require careful selection of meaningful and action-oriented measures for tracking progress toward this goal.


The author acknowledges the collaborative research conducted by RWJF and other partners in developing this action model.


1. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub L No. 111–148, 42 U.S.C. §§ 18001-18121 (2010). Google Scholar
2. Lavizzo-Mourey R. Building a Culture of Health. Available at: http:/ Accessed December 10, 2014. Google Scholar
3. World Health Organization. Declaration of Alma-Ata. Available at: Accessed December 10, 2014. Google Scholar


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Alonzo L. Plough, PhD, MPHAlonzo L. Plough is with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ. “Building a Culture of Health: A Critical Role for Public Health Services and Systems Research”, American Journal of Public Health 105, no. S2 (April 1, 2015): pp. S150-S152.

PMID: 25689198