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Private foundations in America play a exceptional and very important function in advancing social progress. That is properly identified. What is significantly less recognized is the influence such Foundations have on people who perform inside them. This story is a individual one particular.

In January, I completed a decade of service on the Board of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, America’s biggest philanthropy devoted to wellness. Whilst lots of Americans may well not be familiar with this organization, it has created a significant influence on U.S. wellness policy and on the wellness of all Americans. A lot more personally, it has transformed my personal life and pondering as properly.

Understanding the Effect of the Foundation

My knowledge with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) started in 1975. Just about 50 years ago, it was my initial time in the RWJF board space. I was accompanying Anne Somers, professor, healthcare professional, and co-author with her husband Herman Somers of the classic Physicians, Sufferers and Well being Insurance coverage: The Organization and Financing of Health-related Care. I had spent a year with her though a student at Princeton, assisting with analysis in updating her book.

Getting into the striking new Foundation developing, I was in awe of the location. I met Gustav O. Lienhard, the storied Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who had served for years at Johnson &amp Johnson with CEO Robert Wood Johnson, and was personally chosen by Mr. Johnson to head the Foundation. The Foundation had been “propelled to complete growth” as explained in its 1972 annual report, transitioning from a regional philanthropy to one particular of national significance almost overnight as Mr. Johnson left a bequest of more than ten million Johnson &amp Johnson shares (valued at about $1 billion) to launch the Foundation to new heights. The report explained, “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s sources represent the biggest single supply of private capital to help new efforts in the wellness field.”

Even though then just a initial-year healthcare student, I started to have an understanding of the exceptional and significant function that foundations, private and public, play in society—the economic sources, the lengthy-term concentrate, the bridge among the private and public sectors for societal alter, and the higher requirements of accountability and transparency. But I wouldn’t recognize till years later the function this precise foundation would play once again and once again all through my life – influencing the policy I introduced in Congress, inspiring the model for a palliative care corporation I co-founded, and igniting the need to have for alter in my personal neighborhood.

Transplantation and Tobacco Cessation

A single of the earliest intersections of RWJF and my life occurred when I was a heart and lung transplant surgeon at Vanderbilt. In the mid-1990s the Foundation launched a nationwide plan known as the National Plan for Transplantation which aimed to expand access to transplantation and strengthen the high quality of care for transplant sufferers. I was struggling in my every day life as a transplant surgeon with the really troubles the Foundation had stepped in to address and lead on nationally. In 1989 I had founded the Vanderbilt Multi-Organ Transplant Center, and we started transplanting organs that we newly had the science to transplant. Multi-organ transplantation was in its infancy. Evolving clinical and social challenges would present every day in this rapidly-evolving healthcare field. I had written a book known as Transplant: A Heart Surgeon’s Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine on these exact same troubles arising from a important organ donor shortage for the lots of thousands of individuals who could then advantage from transplantation. Two decades into developing a platform to engage in significant wellness challenges of our time, the Foundation had rapidly demonstrated its currency, relevance, and willingness to take on present and emerging troubles, such as organ transplantation in the 1990s.

And in 1991 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation started to tackle one particular of the most intractable complications in the field of public wellness — tobacco addiction, starting a 20-year campaign that invested almost $700 million in efforts to stop tobacco uptake, particularly by youngsters, and to enable addicted customers quit.

As soon as once again, it was individual for me. As a cardiac surgeon, the most frequent process I was performing each and every week was coronary artery bypass grafting – opening the chest, stopping the heart, grafting pieces of vein to bypass or jump more than the diseased portions of heart arteries. And smoking was amongst the strongest of all contributors to causing the illness that I was operating on each and every day heart illness was the quantity one particular result in of death in the U.S. So RWJF focused its vast sources on reversing this illness.

Influencing Federal Policy

I carried my operating space experiences and learnings from RWJF’s advocacy into my subsequent profession. I was elected to the United States Senate in 1995, and as the only doctor serving in that physique, I naturally gravitated to wellness troubles. This brought me back to the Board space at RWJF to talk about an concern they had been so powerfully top on.

R-Tenn., left, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., meet in McCain’s workplace just after the tactic session on tobacco to talk about additional information. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Photos)CQ-Roll Contact, Inc by means of Getty Photos

It was 1998, and I was functioning closely with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on legislation to permit the FDA to regulate tobacco for the initial time, providing the agency the authority to call for the disclosure of solution components, alter warning labels, incentivize safer merchandise, and restrict the marketing and advertising and sale of tobacco merchandise to youngsters. It may well look unimaginable these days, but then the tobacco sector was unregulated, and we have been attempting to alter that. The group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had come to be the national professionals in tobacco cessation and had been the economic impetus behind considerably of the constructive national alter in minimizing smoking. Their tips and counsel have been important to our efforts.

In spite of our committed push then, the Senate wasn’t prepared for this subsequent step in furthering public wellness. It wasn’t for a further decade, in 2009, when Congress ultimately acted, and the FDA received the authority to regulate tobacco. But McCain and I set the stage with our 1998 bill, considerably of which was integrated in the 2009 Family members Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Manage Act, and RWJF was a very important companion in that work. Certainly, the RWJF investment was central to turning the tide on tobacco addiction in America. Information demonstrated millions fewer smoking in 2010 compared to the 1990s, and smoking prices dropped from more than 25% in 1990, to 19% in 2010, with most current figures displaying 12.five% in 2020. And parallel to that we have observed a dramatic fall in deaths from heart attacks (a decline of about 87 deaths per one hundred,000 individuals in 1999 to about 38 deaths per one hundred,000 individuals in 2020) and cardiovascular illness like stroke (stroke mortality per one hundred,000 declined from 88 to 31 for ladies and 112 to 39 for males among 1975 and 2019 in the United States).

I served as Senate Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007, and for considerably of that time I continued to be the only Senator with a healthcare background. In that capacity I firsthand witnessed however a further defining and far-reaching plan of the Foundation – the Well being Policy Fellowship. RWJF smartly recognized the need to have for a lot more healthcare knowledge at the highest levels of government. Therefore, this plan, familiar to all in DC, sends mid-profession wellness specialists to perform in Washington as policy fellows. They are placed in a variety of government agencies, Congressional offices, and believe tanks to obtain direct knowledge in shaping wellness policy at the national level. Certainly, I was fortunate to have RWJF Fellows serving on my personal wellness-connected Congressional committees. The Fellows plan has developed a generation of leaders who proficiently bridge the gap among policy and wellness delivery, integrating capabilities and knowledge to strengthen wellness for all.

Defining the Field of Palliative Care

RWJF in no way rested on its laurels and was generally seeking for the subsequent huge public wellness challenge to take on. On the heels of its tobacco perform, starting in 1996, the Foundation embarked on a 15-year work to strengthen finish-of-life care. It basically defined the field of palliative care in America.

A senior lady at residence getting healthcare.


At the time, research identified most Americans in the 1990s died in hospitals, typically hooked up to machines or in the ICU, and in lots of instances at odds with their wishes to die at residence with family members. For as well lots of the final various months of life have been chaotic, confusing, and frightening. In 1997, RWJF initiated the Advertising Excellence in Finish-of-Life Care plan to recognize, market and institutionalize care practices that permit seriously ill individuals and their households to method the finish of life in physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional comfort. It funded 22 demonstration projects building new models of palliative care, 4 demonstration projects that tested models of delivering palliative care inside hospital ICUs, and made the Mount Sinai College of Medicine Center to Advance Palliative Care. Furthermore, it created the initial framework for doctor specialty coaching and certification in Palliative Care.

This progress and advancement of the field of finish-of-life care considerably impacted my life 20 years later – and by means of that eventually the lives of scores of thousands of other individuals across the nation. Throughout the early 1990s I was operating the Transplant Center at Vanderbilt and weekly performing heart and lung transplant procedures. Sufferers referred to us for transplantation had a terminal diagnosis (till ultimately transplanted) as a result, I became deeply involved in managing the care of person sufferers at the finish of life, as they waited weeks and months for a donor organ to come to be offered. I saw that with a devoted group-primarily based method that integrated the family members, sufferers could reside a considerably greater high quality of life, even with a terminal diagnosis. RWJF’s palliative care models validated with information my personal individual experiences, demonstrating the need to have at scale for this form of multi-discipline, group-primarily based care for these with severe and terminal illnesses.

Right after leaving the Senate in 2007, I had the chance to look at this need to have a lot more seriously. I and colleague Brad Smith, whose brother was a palliative care medical doctor, observed that palliative care was readily offered in urban places close to big teaching hospitals but not for sufferers in suburban and a lot more rural regions. It was an access concern – an equity concern. And we set out to enable resolve it.

Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation model, in 2013 we co-founded and subsequently grew the neighborhood-primarily based, palliative healthcare corporation Aspire Well being, which expanded to 34 states inside 3 years, serving thousands of individuals in suburban regions who would not otherwise have that life-altering care. Aspire became the biggest non-hospice, neighborhood-primarily based palliative care corporation in the nation, taking to scale learnings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation models. We worked straight with Mount Sinai leadership. This story is an instance of how private foundations in our nation play such a exceptional function in synergistically bringing the private and public sectors with each other to the betterment of humanity.

Commission to Construct a Healthier America and Social Determinants of Well being

In the years among leaving the Senate in 2007 and developing Aspire, I engaged in my initial substantive volunteer project with the Foundation. I received a get in touch with from my buddy Dean Rosen, who was functioning with the Foundation in DC, and he asked if I would look at spending time on an thrilling, upcoming project with RWJF that would concentrate on how a neighborhood impacts an individual’s wellness. It would center on the non-healthcare determinants of wellness – now known as the social determinants of wellness.

Social Determinants of Well being mechanism idea.


From February 2008 to December 2009, I served on the Foundation’s Commission to Construct a Healthier America, chaired by former CMS Administrator Mark McClellan and former Director of the White Property Workplace of Management and Price range Alice Rivlin. Led by then-Commission employees director and Harvard Professor David Williams (presently on the Board of the Foundation and chair of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being), we have been joined by 12 brilliant and diverse believed leaders who challenged the status quo on wellness and healthcare. Collectively we looked outdoors the method for methods to strengthen wellness for all, eventually issuing ten substantive suggestions for action.

Currently, social determinants are a normal portion of our wellness and wellness vernacular, but 15 years ago, we have been just scratching the surface of the concern. Couple of realized that social determinants drive as considerably as 80 % of wellness outcomes. This was the initial time social determinants as a field have been comprehensively defined we realized that exactly where you reside, perform, play, and pray had a higher influence than your medical doctor. We popularized producing the wholesome option the quick option. Whilst we are nevertheless grappling these days with how to address and incorporate these external things in our classic healthcare systems, RWJF’s Commission when once again pioneered the way in altering the dialogue.

And we develop on this new understanding in so lots of methods these days. For instance, in my present position founding and developing healthcare providers in the private sector (with Cressey and Corporation and with Frist Cressey Ventures) to enable resolve the desires of vulnerable populations, we location a particular emphasis on social determinants, for instance meals (Mom’s Meals), digital access for the underserved (Thrive Well being), neighborhood solutions at residence (CareBridge), and residence accessibility for these with disabilities (Lifeway Mobility).

$1 Billion Dollars to Address Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Right after my lots of influential experiences with RWJF, I committed to joining its Board of Trustees in 2013. The Foundation generally requires on the seriously huge troubles of our time. A single of its significant troubles of concentrate had come to be our nation’s crippling, childhood obesity crisis. In the early 2000s, childhood obesity had reached epidemic proportions, and in 2007 the Board committed $500 million to fight this phenomenon, with a aim to reverse the epidemic. In 2015, we as a Board committed an extra $500 million (for a grand total of $1 billion dollars) more than ten years to continue the bold initiative. Learnings from this perform have considerably influenced federal policy on college meals, meals help, and the Specific Supplemental Nutrition Plan for Females, Infants, and Young children (WIC).

Edward A. Reynolds West Side Higher College on February five, 2015 in NYC to help a selection by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to commit $500 million more than the subsequent decade to finish childhood obesity. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Photos)Getty Photos

Inspiring Neighborhood Action in Nashville

My time on the Board informed and inspired my subsequent neighborhood venture in genuine time. As a Nashville native, I’ve lengthy taken pride in my city’s national leadership in the field of healthcare solutions it was, at the time that I joined RWJF, residence to 17 publicly held healthcare service providers with national attain. These providers would routinely obtain awards for their outstanding high quality of care delivered about the nation.

But my eyes have been broadly opened one particular afternoon when our Foundation’s initiative to develop information sources about county-level wellness outcomes was getting presented. Far from the outstanding high quality I had assumed, I discovered we in Nashville had embarrassing wellness disparities and general poor wellness. In spite of our wealthy regional healthcare sources, Nashville had greater prices of obesity, greater prices of infant mortality, greater smoking prices, and greater prices of hypertension compared to all our peer cities. A fellow board member asked me why this was, and I honestly didn’t have the answer – but from that day forward I became committed to figuring it out.

Drawing heavily on what I had discovered from my participation on the Foundation’s Commission to Construct a Healthier America, in 2015 I brought with each other our city’s healthcare executives, non-profit and faith-primarily based leaders, neighborhood activists, and regional elected officials to type a neighborhood-primarily based collaborative devoted to moving the needle on Nashville-Davidson County wellness measures. We launched NashvilleHealth, and these days, now eight years later, it continues to forge revolutionary partnerships to advance wellness equity in our city.

In 2019, this exceptional collaborative performed the initial countywide wellness assessment in almost 20 years. Then, following the pandemic in 2021, NashvilleHealth comprehensively evaluated our city’s response to COVID-19 and issued 28 actionable suggestions for future public wellness preparedness and crisis response readiness. And it helped plant the seeds for the now burgeoning, statewide information collaborative not too long ago launched at Belmont University just final year. This movement is all thanks to that original information gathered, analyzed, and publicly shared in the RWJF County Well being Rankings that created clear the need to have for action.

RWJF: The Subsequent Ten Years

My term on the Board has expired and a further will fill my location. As I appear back on the final decade of service, and on all the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has achieved in that time and in the years ahead of, there is no query this organization has been a force altering for very good the trajectory of wellness and wellbeing in America. It has also been, as I have shared, a force for very good in my life, shining a light on exactly where new wellness policy, neighborhood action, and private sector healthcare innovation can be so precious.

The Board has demonstrated a sensible strategic path more than the years, and I know that will continue. It is not my location to advise at this point, but I do have a individual hope. It is that the Foundation does look at in the future what the Planet Well being Organization (WHO) has known as “the single most significant wellness threat facing humanity.” That threat is climate alter. The Foundation has generally been ahead of the curve in tackling our most important barriers to wellness, and the reality of a altering climate and intense climate events is in my thoughts amongst the greatest challenges to wellness ahead of us.

I appear forward to seeing the alter RWJF will make doable more than the subsequent ten years.

Adhere to me on Twitter. Check out my website. 

I am a heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U. S. Senate Majority Leader, and Chair of the Worldwide Board of The Nature Conservancy. I am committed to applying innovation, technologies, and leadership to producing genuine improvements in American wellness and healthcare. I founded and serve as chairman of Hope By means of Healing Hands, a international wellness organization NashvilleHealth, a neighborhood collaborative devoted to enhancing the wellness and properly-getting of all Nashvillians and SCORE, a collaborative K12 education reform organization. I began the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, these days the busiest heart transplant plan in the planet, and serve as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, exactly where I co-chair their Well being Project. I am a founding companion of Frist Cressey Ventures, and chair the Executive Council of the wellness service investment firm Cressey &amp Corporation. I also host the podcast “A Second Opinion: Rethinking American Health”.

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