Healthy approach key to addressing community issues

Sarah Johnson

When you think of public health, what comes to mind? A place to get a flu shot or pick up a birth certificate? Perhaps you recall seeing an official-looking document hanging in a business and think of public health as the inspectors who ensure restaurants, pools and other public places operate safely. But what about child care?

Like an increasing number of public health organizations across the United States, Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) embraces a definition of health that extends beyond the clinic or lab. We view health as a state of well-being affected by the social, economic and physical conditions in which we live. Things like child care, access to the outdoors and connections to others have as much, or more, effect on our health as visits to the doctor, and MCPH is working to improve each of those factors in our community.

For each of us to lead healthy lives, we must pay attention to the differences that exist in those conditions. In some Mesa County neighborhoods, more than three-quarters of children under age 5 live in poverty, which has a clear correlation with poor health outcomes. If we want good health outcomes for all community members, we must take extra steps in some parts of our community to ensure the opportunities for good health exist.

According to Civic Canopy, a Denver-based organization which helps communities tackle big-picture goals: “There is broad agreement that the problems we face are so complex that no person, nonprofit, corporation or government agency has the power to solve them alone.”

In Mesa County, this means challenges like suicide, poverty and a severe child care shortage must be addressed through cross-sector participation and collaboration. MCPH has adopted an approach to public health known as the community health strategist.

In this role, MCPH acts as a convener and facilitator of stakeholders to identify community health priorities and develop strategies to achieve shared goals. MCPH brings data, analytic and organizational capacity and other resources to support community partnerships. The 2018-2020 community health needs assessment offers example of how the community health strategist idea unifies efforts to create good health. The assessment can be viewed at https://health.mesacounty.us/wp-content/uploads/CHNA-2018-2020-Web.pdf.

In Colorado, health departments and nonprofit hospitals are required to produce a periodic community assessment. In Mesa County, MCPH collaborates with Colorado Canyons, Community Hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center and West Springs Hospital to produce one comprehensive document every three years, facilitating a more cohesive approach to health in our community.

In addition to addressing traditional data around injury, disease and causes of death, the assessment released in June 2018 takes an upstream approach that considers those social, economic and physical conditions that contribute to, or detract from, health. For example, licensed child care facilities have the capacity to serve only about 25 percent of the children age 5 and under in Mesa County.

A lack of quality child care has implications for businesses that need stable and reliable employees, parents who need to work to remain self-sufficient and children who need care that supports their development and keeps them safe.

“Child care is a business problem. My top guy had to leave work yesterday in the middle of the day because he didn’t have child care. It’s a problem for expanding our business,” Paul Alexander of West Coast Wheel Accessories told MCPH.

With its broadly reaching effects, child care is identified as an area of concern in the assessment, and MCPH leads a coalition of nonprofit, government and business organizations working to address this challenge.

“Public health is responsible for building a foundation that consists of housing, food security, transportation and post-secondary or economic pathways,” said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of MCPH.

Public health is about supporting good health for all members of our community. As community health strategist, MCPH helps address economic, social and educational factors and creates a vibrant, caring and connected community in which each of us has the relationships and opportunities we need to thrive.