This post was written by Sarah McAfee, a former member of our team.
When we look at the great successes of history, they are neither an accident of good fortune nor the result of perseverance—they’re both. Great progress can be made when advantages arrive at just the right time and in just the right way during our hours, and hours, and still more hours of hard work. It’s a simple formula: hard work plus good luck equals great outcomes.
Colorado is already considered to be a leader in health care innovation and reform, and we have certainly seen success in some of our work, but I’m not sure anyone is ready to proclaim that we have achieved all that we’re capable of. And while it is easier to wait for a person, project, or community to reach the peak of their success before we look back and analyze how they got there, it seems like there is an opportunity to better predict future success by looking for clues along the way. Perhaps if we are more aware of the unique advantages of our situation, we can better capitalize on them.
To understand an individual’s path to success, you usually have to start at their childhood, so I went back to Colorado’s early days—the 1800s, when Colorado wasn’t Colorado, but just a beautiful expanse of land out west—to look for signs that fortune might be on our side. As it turns out (highly recommended reading), Colorado was the original health tourism destination. While many were headed west in search of gold, just as many were in search of better health, as word spread that our dry air, brisk nights, and mysterious mineral waters were healing ailments ranging from tuberculosis to asthma. The climate and geography of Colorado, even 200 years ago, gave us a major advantage over every other part of the US in establishing a world class health system. Years later there was World War II, which was not fortunate for anyone, but did lead Governor Vivian to create a number of post-war subcommittees to get Colorado moving forward again. And he just so happened, through a series of accidents and oversights, to appoint Dr. Florence Sabin to head a powerful health subcommittee, thinking she was “a nice little old lady who’d spent her whole life in the cloister of the laboratory” and wasn’t likely to “give him any trouble.” However, it turned out that Dr. Sabin would become Colorado’s hero of public health, champion of data collection, consummate collaborator—and a major good luck charm for health in Colorado. Her contributions launched the state’s health care system into a new era of evidence-based decision-making and cross-sector collaboration that continue today.
The other condition for success is hard work, which is a narrative we’re more familiar with. Colorado has always had a proud history of grit and perseverance. From the first arrivals, whose one-room hospital accommodated two patients on bearskin rugs on the floor, to the decades of work to overcome the outbreaks of “filth diseases” that plagued the state in the late 1800s, achieving better health has long been a Colorado goal. Pioneering thinkers in the early 1900s piloted new ideas around community health and the provision of health care that required arduous journeys around the state—traveling clinics, visiting nurses, and education campaigns—that ultimately leapfrogged Colorado ahead of the rest of the country. Through Dr. Sabin’s years as a health care leader and the enormous amounts of work done under her initiatives, to our 2008 Blue Ribbon Commission for Healthcare Reform, and our myriad current efforts underway, we have had decades of concentrated, passionate progress toward our shared goal of better health.
Sometimes a leader’s role is to scout the way ahead—sometimes far ahead—and then report back to the troops on the best path forward. No one knows what the future holds for health care, but at this moment in time anyway, it seems the conditions are favorable for Colorado to surpass even our own expectations of success and help lead the country in this endeavor. Provided we continue to work diligently toward our goals and make the most of our unique opportunities, our great-great-grandchildren may someday read about Colorado as the state that finally figured out health care.