Interact for Health

Larry Cohen, founder and executive director of the Prevention Institute

(Dec 19th, 2016)

Larry Cohen is the founder and executive director of the Prevention Institute, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to improve public health by identifying the social determinants of health and improving community environments. The organization aims to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. Cohen has written a book, called "Prevention Diaries," in which he highlights the importance of prevention. He spoke with Interact for Health to discuss the successes and lessons learned from his time with the organization.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the Prevention Institute and its goals?

Larry Cohen: Our goal is to keep people from getting sick or injured in the first place. In other words, we go beyond the individual and into the community. We advance policies, like no-smoking laws in California, that build safe environments. These, in turn, foster healthy behaviors, like exercise, so we can prevent people from getting sick as opposed to just taking care of them afterward. The institute itself serves as a place where people who think about prevention and want to advance it have access to the highest quality resources.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned?

Cohen: So much of the national prevention model is focused on educating people about health and safety risks and hoping that as a result of learning, they're going to magically change their behavior. That is important and works to a certain extent, but what we learned is that there needs to be comprehensive strategies. We need to change the practices of organizations, and we need to change policy. The overall environment needs to mirror the prevention strategies. It's not just about information, but action. For example, if a hospital tells patients to eat healthy food and actually offers it in the cafeteria, that's an example of where the message and the actions start to align.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of the institute are you most proud of?

Cohen: I'm proud of the work we've done in developing the community-centered health model, which recognizes that a person's environment and actions affect their health. We aim to improve community conditions overall and, to do that, we partner with health care leaders to find opportunities where we can encourage healthy food and improve access to it and make streets safer and clean up parks so people can be more active.

Interact for Health: What about your work is most fulfilling?

Cohen: What excites me at this point is that there's an increasing visibility and enthusiasm for prevention, and people are starting to better understand the connection between how we live and how it affects our health and our wellbeing. For example, in the last decade we've seen the organic food market grow at a fast rate. That signals people are paying much more attention to what they eat. I also think that prevention is deeply personal. When we, our friends or our families suffer from severe illnesses, it dominates our lives. So the desire for prevention really emerges from the understanding that health really matters, and people are starting to get that.