5 former HHS secretaries give advice to the next-in-line

At the Aspen (Colo.) Ideas Festival earlier this summer, Judy Woodruff, a news anchor and journalist, interviewed five former HHS secretaries.

In the interview, which recently appeared in Health Affairs, the leaders — David Mathews, PhD; Louis Sullivan, MD; Donna Shalala, PhD; Tommy Thompson and Kathleen Sebelius — discussed challenges they faced and the advice they would give to the next HHS secretary.

Here are five pieces of advice from the former HHS secretaries.

1. Implement health promotion and disease prevention programs. Dr. Sullivan advised the next HHS secretary to improve upon the existing scientific advances of the 20th century. "If we are successful in improving health behavior, as we have been in a few areas such as decreasing tobacco use, we will see an enormous improvement in the health of our citizens and also a dramatic reduction in healthcare costs," Dr. Sullivan said.

2. Focus on prevention. Dr. Shalala advised the next leader to encourage Americans to exercise, eat healthy and avoid smoking. She suggested the use of economic incentives and "[streamlining] the whole system so that innovation could come in, but [doing] that in a bipartisan manner."

3. Be bold. "You have an opportunity like you've never had before," Mr. Thompson said. He encouraged the next HHS secretary to meet with leaders from both political parties and discuss chronic illness, death in America and Medicare.

4. Launch online resources with caution. Ms. Sebelius gave simple advice: "Stay away from websites!"

5. Create honest communication between the public and the government. "I think we need a real, honest conversation with people about the cost and consequences of the tough choices we are going to have to make," Dr. Matthews said. He noted that although technology, efficient administration and better professional training can help, ultimately the United States must make a number of difficult choices about healthcare today.

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