AUGUSTA — It’s common knowledge among medical professionals that disease prevention is the right approach to medicine, a top public health official said Friday.

It’s a whole other matter to translate that into national health policy, the acting Deputy Surgeon General of the United States told an audience of Maine health professionals on Friday.

Dr. David Rutstein spoke Friday at the seventh annual Maine Quality Counts conference at the Augusta Civic Center, exhorting the doctors, nurses and other health professionals in attendance to carry on the work of prevention.

“It’s been the priority of every Surgeon General of our time,” Rutstein said.

But now, he said, medical professionals have newly passed national health care reform legislation on their side.

The landmark reform act includes a number of initiatives aimed at prevention — rather than after-the-fact treatment — of chronic diseases and other health problems, Rutstein said.

A Prevention and Public Heath Investment Fund will bankroll a number prevention-focused initiatives, with the ultimate objective of keeping health care cost growth under control.

In addition, Rutstein noted, the health care reform law requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to post nutrition information on menu boards and drive-through displays.

The new law also empanels a National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council to influence federal disease prevention strategies.

“We really are turning the corner on reducing the burden of disease and suffering in our nation,” Rutstein said.

But the United States’ struggles with obesity, diabetes, tobacco-induced illnesses and other chronic diseases won’t be entirely addressed by policy, he said.

“Adults serve as powerful role models,” Rutstein said. “If children see adults eating nutritious food and enjoying physical activity, they’re more likely to do the same.”

While new health care reform legislation might focus more U.S. health policy on prevention, Rutstein said, health professionals can’t expect an immediate impact. It took 50 years of anti-tobacco efforts to cut U.S. smoking rates in half, he said.

“In public health, we have to continue to take the long view,” Rutstein said.

The public can’t expect immediate savings from a focus on prevention, he said.

“Many prevention strategies save money,” Rutstein said. “Many won’t.”

Rutstein spoke in Maine the day after demonstrators staged “tea parties” around the state to protest what they said was rampant government spending, citing the health care reform law as an example.

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