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Public health tailors work to community

February 13, 2019

When I tell people I work in public health, there is often a disconnect on what public health is and what local health departments actually do.

I often explain that public health is about understanding and impacting the health of a community, rather than the health of one patient. A core function of local public health is to understand the people, the health and the community being served.

If you can do that, then you can tailor strategies to address health concerns at the local level, sometimes even down to the neighborhood level.

So how do local health departments do this?

During the last few years the “understand your community” part has become a more formalized process with a more formal sounding name: community health needs assessment (CHNA). By routinely conducting local CHNA’s we can assess the needs of the community, understand what is impacting health locally, and prioritize our resources. We do this with collaboration from local organizations and, most importantly, from the actual people that live in this community.

Since 2012 hospitals have also been required to perform a needs assessment to help them better understand the communities they serve.

In Olmsted County, we have partnered with Olmsted Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic to create one joint assessment of the community. By coordinating these myriad of efforts, we reduce duplication, improve efficiencies, and share the results that will lead to improved overall health and healthcare access for our residents.

The full process identifies the major health issues facing our community, strengthens existing partnerships and fosters cross-sector collaboration. When we collaborate, our combined expertise and services can create a stronger focus on the community’s health needs and the systems that can address those needs.

We continue to strengthen our process by including as many community voices as possible. We not only analyze available health data, we engage the public through surveys, interviews, and focus groups in the community. Our goal is to not only understand what the data tells us, but to learn from you, the community, about what health issues, barriers and concerns you see and experience.

As a community, we continue to improve our understanding of the environment we work and live in each time we do a CHNA.

Our third collaborative assessment is in the process of being completed and will be available to the public later this year. This year we partnered with a variety of organizations to increase the reach of our public surveys.

Thank you to the more than 2,500 individuals who took the time to share their knowledge, views and beliefs during the survey process.

Our next step is host dozens of listening sessions with community leaders, health and community service professionals, and with residents.

Hearing from our residents is crucial in understanding the real issues and how they might be best addressed. This information will guide health department strategies to improve our collective health while reducing negative health impacts that are identified in Olmsted County.

Good health and a strong community are goals we all share. The CHNA process helps all of us understand how to increase our community’s overall health and decrease the impact of public health issues like obesity and diabetes, cancer, and infectious disease. I’d like to thank our partners and the community members that have helped create this latest assessment of health in our community.

As we develop strategies, I’d also like to encourage our residents to get involved.

Local public health might be able to say that we need to exercise more, but it takes an engaged community to help figure out how to make that a realistic outcome for us, our neighbors, and our community.

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