Your Turn: Advancing health equity in our community

In recent decades, the rise of chronic disease as the predominant driver of health in our country has spawned new models for the role and function of local public health departments.

Each year the first week of April is recognized as National Public Health Week. This represents a great opportunity for communities to focus on this shifting role and where we are headed.

For us in Douglas County, we continue to take the lead on delivering vaccinations to our community, serving as a public health regulator and investigator of disease outbreaks. But as we seek to embrace a more expansive role, we also have become a community voice, convener and planner.

As directed by our Lawrence-Douglas County Health Board in adopting the 2018 Strategic Plan, an overarching theme for this new role has been to advance health equity in all we do and to be informed and influenced by the needs and aspirations of the community.

You’ve likely noticed this in recent months as we published the county’s first Health Equity Report. As we analyzed this data, we found the results demonstrate some sobering news:

• Education matters: In Douglas County you are twice as likely to smoke if you have a high school degree or less.

• Income matters: Those of us earning less than $35,000 a year are six times more likely to be without health insurance.

• Race matters: Douglas County babies born to African-American mothers are twice as likely to be born at low birth weight.

• Place matters: The average life expectancy in rural western Douglas County is 8.2 years higher than the average in North Lawrence and parts of eastern Lawrence.

We could say these conditions hold us back as a health department from realizing our vision of health for all. However, more importantly these are not just numbers.

These results are keeping our own friends, family members and neighbors in our community from realizing their full health potential.

It is no accident that a multisector, multijurisdiction steering committee in 2018 developed the county’s five-year Community Health Plan with health equity as an encompassing focus on addressing: behavioral health, safe and affordable housing, nutrition and physical activity and poverty and jobs.

It has been incredibly encouraging to see the beginnings of conversations surrounding these issues.

We have seen important progress on these issues, but a major key in continuing to move forward will be ensuring that we offer the opportunity for everyone to realize the fruits of this labor.

The health equity report is a key first step in this important work. If we use this data to become more aware of what it’s like for anyone in our community to seek to navigate our systems and environment to achieve better health, we can begin to achieve health for all in Douglas County.

As someone who has invested his career in public health, this new and more expansive role is also truly exciting to me, and I have seen how it energizes our own staff and community partners.

As National Public Health Week approaches April 1-7, I encourage everyone in Douglas County to use this opportunity to begin new conversations with our neighbors and explore opportunities for positive change.

That could start with reading the Health Equity Report yourself or engaging the Health Department or another partner agency on an issue related to health equity.

This is challenging work, and it is our community’s work. Creating the conditions for health for all is the only way to become “healthier together.”

— Dan Partridge is the director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.


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