Health advocates pushing to put community health plan into action

Public health advocates in Douglas County recently finished putting the final touches on a long-range plan to improve the overall health of area residents.

Now, they say, one of their biggest concerns is making sure the Roadmap to a Healthier Douglas County doesn’t just sit on a bookshelf collecting dust.

“We need to have some leaders in the community to take this on,” Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, told county commissioners last week. “This requires community mobilization and people willing to take that public step and say, ‘I’ll own this piece and take it forward.'”

Toward that end, public health advocates and community groups who worked on the plan now are going around the community, enlisting support from area businesses and local governments to help put the plan into action.

On Wednesday, county commissioners voted to accept the plan as a kind of “guiding document” that will be used in making policy decisions that can affect public health.

The plan covers a wide range of policy areas, from access to medical and mental health services to access to healthy foods, recreational activities, jobs and education.

Vicki Collie-Akers, associate director of the Kansas University Work Group for Community Health and Development, said that’s one of the aspects of the Douglas County plan that sets it apart from health plans in many other communities.

“There’s a lot of attention being paid right now in public health to social determinants of health,” Collie-Akers said. “Access to education or employment — those underlying factors that contribute to health that really often aren’t addressed through public health.”

She added: “For example, in the access to healthy foods section, there’s particular focus on access for low-income families and how to specifically address those needs as a way of trying to work toward social determinants of health, or offset the impact of some of those determinants.”

Baseline conditions

Douglas County ranks as one of the 10 healthiest counties in Kansas, according to a recent analysis by the Kansas Health Institute. But local public health officials say there still is a lot of room for improvement.

For example, Collie-Akers said, a community health assessment released last year found that roughly one in four Douglas County adults qualifies as “obese.” About 15 percent of adults are active smokers. More than half do not get the recommended amount of daily physical activity, and fully 16 percent do not engage in any daily leisure-time activity at all. Nearly 14 percent do not eat the daily recommended amount of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

The survey also identified access to affordable housing, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence as major public health concerns.

That survey was the starting point from which organizers of the health plan worked to come up with specific strategies to improve community health.

David Ambler, who chairs the county health board, said a group of more than 100 people sifted through the data and identified 13 major public health issues in the community.

That list was eventually pared down to five, and work groups were formed around each one to develop goals and strategies for improving outcomes.

The five-year plan

The Roadmap to a Healthier Douglas County lays out policy goals and objectives across those five key areas: access to healthy foods, access to health services, mental health, physical activity and poverty and jobs.

Within each of those areas, the plan identifies specific strategies and goals to be attained in the next five years.

For example, the plan calls for increasing by 5 percent the number of adults who eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. It also calls for increasing by 5 percent the number of children and youth who are at a healthy weight.

And in the area of poverty and jobs, it calls for a 10 percent increase in individuals from low-income families who have received a high school diploma or GED, and a 5 percent increase in the number of adults who have an industry-recognized vocational certificate.

Collie-Akers said the KU Workgroup for Community Health and Development is developing a web-based tool that will help officials monitor progress toward meeting the objectives in the plan.

She said that tool, known as the Online Documentation and Support System, will be embedded on the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s website.