When I started my career in the federal government, I learned about prevention science. I asked a lot of people what it was and they pointed me to the “fan model” championed by the Institute of Medicine.

I didn’t understand what it meant to be a preventionist or how one becomes a preventionist. I also had an inherent curiosity about who deems you an expert in prevention. There was no clear body in charge of this niche of social services.

I decided to take the “office expert in prevention” to lunch to ask more about the concept of prevention, Gail Ritchie. She took out a napkin and a pen and drew the fan model.

The look on Gail’s face when she talks about prevention is like a kid who was given free ice cream. She get’s even more excited when someone asks her to talk about prevention.

Her face was beaming as she explained how there are three levels of prevention and how prevention works at the individual and communal levels.

One lunch with Gail really was like a semester long course on how prevention science works. Before lunch was over I asked Gail how one becomes a preventionist.

She said it was simple, no one is interested in prevention. It’s not sexy. People don’t understand why investing early costs less than waiting for bad outcomes to take root.

All you need to do to become an expert in prevention also known as a preventionist, is to be interested in and learn about prevention. The science behind how it works and how it really works in practice is the only way to really understand prevention.

That didn’t seem like a plausible answer. Surely there had to be some sort of prevention governing body that tells us how to stop problems before they become problems?

I eventually learned about the work of the Prevention Institute. Maybe they were the group who determined when you could be considered a preventionist?

Years after consuming their material and learning from their prevention models, I attended one of their meetings as a thought partner. It was very cool sitting in a room full of smart people talking about very technical ideals coming to life through programming in the community.

Simultaneously in another part of my work, I was interacting with other Prevention Institute staff helping the city of Milwaukee develop their Blueprint for Peace. These folks were everywhere cool work was happening.

I got to see first hand how investing in community strategies and innovation support advancements in social sciences and social services. I was able to see the fan model and other ”prevention theories” in action.

Gail would have called them ”prevention interventions” since each community implementing prevention strategies is unique and must sustain their work under their unique circumstances. Each prevention intervention has to be designed for that community blending best practices and innovation.

That brings us to the Friday funny.

Nearly 15 years after my original lunch with Gail asking what prevention is about, I’m on a call with 3 colleagues from the Prevention Institute.

We’re discussing sustainable systems change and social impact strategies. Before we start talking I’m mentioning the flavored water I’m drinking doesn’t taste like hibiscus or berry but it’s still good. I use these waters as a way to make myself hydrate.

One of my colleagues interjects, is that a sparkling water?

I said yes!

He then told me about his dentist warning him not to drink those because something in the sparkling is bad for your teeth.

I laughed and joked the he’s just doing his job as a preventionist warning me of the possible bad outcomes for my dental health.

The moral of the story is, it doesn’t matter who you work for or what experience you have with prevention.

Gail was right.

All you need to do to benefit from prevention is be interested enough to understand it and apply the principles.

What Is Prevention?

Prevention is when a negative outcome is avoided because a condition or behavior lessened the risk that the negative outcome would happen. That’s the most simplistic way to describe prevention.

You might hear people use the term ”upstream prevention” which refers to moving ahead of the problem by looking at the root causes to prevent the negative outcome from happening.

This is based on a parable often shared to describe how prevention works.

How Does It Save Us Money?

Investing in prevention is cheaper than treating the negative outcomes we’re trying to prevent.

Using the example above with the fizzy water you can see how cost savings on dental visits can be achieved by not drinking things that harm your teeth. Not purchasing the water is cheaper than having dental issues that cause tooth decay.

Prevention is more than return on investment (ROI). Prevention also saves us time and time often equals money.

When Does It Work?

Prevention works before there is a problem. The cool thing is prevention is something that can be done early and right up to the point of when there is a problem.

There are different stages of preventative interventions that map to the risk of the negative outcome happening. For example, in primary prevention you can use strategies that benefit everyone.

On the other hand, if one group is at higher risk, you can focus strategies on that group specific to their needs. That would be called a secondary preventative intervention.

When someone is at the highest risk there are even further preventative efforts that can be put in place to help that person avoid the negative outcome you are trying to prevent.

Learn More About Prevention

The Prevention Institute offers resources and tools for communities use these tools to evaluate their current prevention efforts and to determine layered strategies for attaining sustainable outcomes.

Using tools and resources developed for preventionists gives you the knowledge to prevent some of society’s most difficult problems to solve. Prevention science applies to a lot of social causes. For more information about how to sustain your efforts read this blog post.

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