Athens public health conference seeks healthier future for Georgians
Engaging communities and promoting partnerships to improve health care dominated discussions Thursday during the inaugural State of Public Health Conference at the University of Georgia.
Organizers of the conference held at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education hoped to spark discussion and craft a plan to improve the health and well-being of future Georgians.
Hosted by the Georgia Public Health Training Center at UGA’s College of Public Health, the conference featured workshops tackling a variety of public health issues in the state.
Through anecdotes and statistical information, Tyler Norris, vice president of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente, explained how a conversation about the public’s health underpins the prosperity of the nation, why a person’s zip code can be used as a better guide to show their life expectancy than their genetic status, and why public health workers must get underneath the things that lead to those issues lest America find itself less competitive globally.
“Two centuries into democracy, (America) is at risk, and the extent to whether we have a strong third century will have everything to do with how healthy our people are,” Norris said during his keynote address. “If we are not healthy, we will not have a strong third century, and it won’t be because of something that happened abroad. It will be because of something that happened here, on our watch.”
Using color-coded geographical data taken from Kaiser Permanente’s own patient pool in San Fransisco, Norris showed how rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes and hypertension were lower in affluent communities than in poor communities — the life expectancy of people in low income cities was 15 years less.
“Place matters, not just behavior,” he said.
People are told to go outside and walk or ride a bike, but live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and bike lanes. Corner stores are built near poor neighborhoods instead of grocery stores.
Norris said such conditions create environments that affect public health.
“How we change the context in the environments where we eat, drink, move our body and have our social interactions is where we have the most leverage to increase overall population health,” he said. “That’s where the power is. But how do we disrupt the default environment where behavior is made?”
Norris said those who are capable of making changes in these environments are business leaders, the education system, the media, medical care workers, and neighborhood leaders, not just caregivers and the public health system.
“Health doesn’t come from caregivers and the public health system ... it’s everyone’s job to improve population health,” he said.
Workshops throughout the day focused on integrating continuous quality improvement practices into public health, working through the accreditation process for public health districts, engaging communities to improve their health, and using social media to reduce tobacco usage.
In Michelle Gourdine’s workshop, Public Health and Primary Care: Partnering for a Healthier Georgia, “integration” was the key word.
Integration of public health and primary care workers is not about turf battles, minimizing the importance of public health departments, and primary care taking over traditional public health department roles and vice versa, Gourdine said. It is more about creating mutual awareness, cooperation and partnership between public health and primary care workers who often have the same goals, but work in separate silos.
“Integration is necessary because the current health care costs cannot be sustained,” she said.
Recommendations made through the workshop were to link staff and data at the regional, state and local level and to create a common research and learning networks to foster and support integration, developing the workforce needed to support the integration of primary care and public health, and improving integration through existing programs and new legislative initiatives.
In another session, public health administrators and community leaders from Clayton and Colquitt counties talked about how they’d gotten people in their communities involved.
Clayton health officials got local businesses, political leaders, area hospitals and schools to help as they sought to get a federally designated health center in their county, said Clayton District Health Director Alpha Bryan. It still took nearly four years to get the health center, which will help deliver health care to uninsured and underinsured people in the county, she said.
One of the first steps people in Colquitt County have taken as it tackles the childhood obesity epidemic is to get children more physically active, including making it easier to walk to school and providing opportunities for children to get exercise during the school day, said Angela Castellow, director of the county’s United Way.
By April Burkhart and Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald