Local health departments remain crucial for Kansas communities

June 7, 2015

By Steve Coen, KHF President and CEO

Far too often, discussions of health and wellness begin and end with a focus on healthcare. We talk about changes in health insurance, advances in healthcare technology and new patient care models.

Yet, for all the dynamic breakthroughs or shifts in funding streams in healthcare, one truth remains the same: No amount of caring for the sick or injured can equal the benefit of preventing health problems before they occur.

Leading the charge in the area of prevention is the field of public health. During the past 100 years, it has been public health efforts that have been most successful in improving our quality of life and protecting our overall health. This includes everything from infectious disease control to food safety to public awareness campaigns about tobacco use, drunk driving and seatbelt safety.

At the forefront of so many of these advancements have been local health departments consistently stepping up to meet the needs of communities, regions and states. Public health departments play a critical but often unrecognized role in promoting and preserving the health of people in communities across the country.

In Kansas, we’re fortunate to have 100 local health departments working to ensure all Kansans have access to basic services and can live, work and play in environments most conducive to long-term health and wellness.

As the health landscape grows increasingly complex, though, and the challenges of keeping entire populations healthy mount, even the best public health departments need access to the latest information, data, best practices and ideas. They need to know how they compare to the best public health departments in the country and how they can strive to perform their services even better for the health of the public they serve.

This is why the Kansas Health Foundation has invested more than $4 million over the past five years to help our state develop the ability to maintain accredited public health departments. Just as hospitals, laboratories, community health centers and academic institutions must be accredited to assure the public they meet a minimum standard, public health now has the same opportunity. Several local health departments in Kansas have already achieved accreditation, with many more working toward this designation.

The benefits for a local health department becoming accredited are numerous. During the process of accreditation, health departments focus on continuous improvement of major tasks and functions such as administrative capacity and governance, assessments of local health issues, development of public health plans and policies, and maintaining a well-trained workforce.

While all of these aspects are important for health departments, the greatest benefit for pursuing the accreditation process has an impact on a much larger scale: The accreditation process provides valuable, measurable feedback to health departments on their strengths and areas of improvement so they can better protect, promote and preserve a community’s health.

A strong public health infrastructure is essential to each and every one of us, as a community or region that seeks to grow, develop and thrive must have a population secure in the areas of health and wellness.

So when it comes to local health departments working to improve through further training or accreditation, it truly is an effort with long-term value. And when it comes to maintaining the health of an entire community, that’s a goal we should all support and encourage.

Steve Coen has served as the president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation since 2008 and held various other roles with the organization since 1989. This editorial is one of a number of opinion pieces Coen pens each year related to the important health issues impacting the people and communities of Kansas.

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