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By JEFF MOORE
For the News-Herald
Three Rivers District Health District is one of the first 11 in the nation to receive national accreditation.
The Public Health Accreditation Board recently awarded the status to the district, which operates health departments in Carroll, Gallatin, Owen and Pendleton counties.
Three Rivers District Director Dr. Georgia Heise said work began on the new national accreditation process about 10 years ago. Officials with the health district knew before the process was formalized that it was a goal they wanted to achieve.
“This is a truly historic moment in public health,” PHAB President and CEO Kaye Bender, PhD, RN, FAAN, said. “With accreditation, we now have national standards that promote continuous quality improvement for public health and a mechanism for recognizing high performing public health departments. These are the first of many health departments that we look forward to being able to recognize for achieving national standards that foster efficiency and effectiveness and promote continuous quality improvement.”
The health departments, including Three Rivers, also won praise from the CDE for their achievement.
“Just as schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies do, health departments can use the accreditation process to improve services and better protect health. We look forward to the day when most people in this country are served by accredited health departments,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said.
Heise said they started working on it before public health districts could apply. When it was announced, Three Rivers was ready.
“Accreditation is a playbook of how to run a health department,” she said. The standards set for public health departments offer them a way to operate, as well as a way to focus on quality improvement.
Heise said health departments face a “fine line” between the policy issues they are charged with and the clinical offerings they provide.
“I am very grateful to the employers of Three Rivers for the health services they provide to Owen countians and this national accreditation is a result of the hard work of Dr. Heise and a very dedicated staff,” Owen County Judge Executive Carolyn Keith said. “We are very fortunate to have the Three Rivers Health District based in Owen County and receiving this accreditation simply presents proof of the high degree of professional service provided through the Three Rivers District Health Department.”
This process allowed them to examine policies and begin making the transition to focus on them.
“The accreditation process has helped us ensure that the programs and services we provide are as responsive as possible to the needs of our communities,” Heise said. “With accreditation, Three Rivers is demonstrating increased accountability and credibility to our public, funders, elected officials and partner organizations.”
The national program, jointly supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aims to improve and protect the health of the public by advancing the quality and performance of public health departments. The 11 awarded accreditation — three of them from Kentucky — are first among hundreds preparing to seek this national status.
Heise said the Three Rivers District board was involved and supportive throughout the process. “That relationship is stronger that it was,” she said.
“Whenever you see our seal of accreditation, you know that Three Rivers has been rigorously examined and meets or exceeds national standards that promote continuous quality improvement for public health,” Pendleton County Judge-Executive Henry Bertram, Three Rivers Board of Health chairman, said. “By continuing to improve our services and performance, we can be sure we are meeting the public health needs of those we serve as effectively as possible.”
PHAB officials said public health departments play a critical role in protecting and improving the health of people and communities. Health departments in each locality provide a range of services aimed at promoting healthy behaviors; preventing diseases and injuries; ensuring access to safe food, water, clean air, and life-saving immunizations; and preparing for and responding to health emergencies.
The accreditation process also allowed officials across the health district to look at what they do not have set up and how they can help solve problems.
As an example, Heise said the district looked to its partners in each community to help patients who come to the health centers.
While the health department is not a primary health care provider, she said they work with primary care providers who take Medicaid so patients “will have full access to care.”
Covering a four-county area helped the district through the accreditation, as it does in many other ways.
“The economies of scale” with four county health departments provide those in the district to draw and share resources with each other. It also allows them to draw on the experience of the staff across the district.
Each district also has its own identity and works on specific issues facing their particular community, such as smoking, car wrecks or teen pregnancy. This is accomplished through each county’s health and safety partnership, Heise said.
Even though the district has received its five-year accreditation, the process is ongoing, she said. The district has a cycle that it goes through to access needs of the communities every three to five years
Heise said they will soon begin another assessment looking at the statistics, talking with people and using this information to develop another plan. This process will point “to what we need to address,” she said.
The needs assessment and accreditation processes allow the health district to look at things they are doing well, things they aren’t and problems that arise and need their attention.
While the initial accreditation was a “snapshot” of where the district is, PHAB will review items in the plan to determine “Did they do it and did it work,” she said.
Heise said some of the issues public health faces are tough ones because they deal with personal choice and chronic disease. These range from diabetes and cancer to obesity and tobacco use.
“The accreditation process helps to ensure that the programs and services that health departments provide are as responsive as possible to the needs of the communities they serve,” said Carol Moehrle, MD, chair of PHAB’s board of directors. “Accreditation is now driving the nation’s public health departments to continuously improve the quality of the services they deliver and to demonstrate their accountability and credibility.”
Accreditation also promotes consistency in meeting standards, she said.
“With an ever-increasing number of health departments now applying for and becoming accredited, you will soon be able to receive the same quality of public health services wherever you go in the United States,” Moehrle said.
Heise said she and staff members at the health district and its departments are proud of their accomplishment. She said local people are getting calls from people at health departments across the state who hold the same position there wanting to know how they accomplished what they did through accreditation.