Public Health Touches Everybody: Washington State's Mary Selecky on Accreditation

Apr 22, 2013, 12:20 PM

file Mary Selecky, director of the Washington State health department

NewPublicHealth is speaking with directors of several health departments who recently were accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board. Eleven health departments received the credential so far. We recently spoke with Mary Selecky, director of the Washington State health department, one of the first two state health agencies receive national accreditation status. Ms. Selecky recently announced her plans to retire from the health department.

>>Also read our interview with Terry Cline, health commissioner of Oklahoma, which also was recently accredited by PHAB.

NPH: How do you think accreditation will improve delivery of public health services and care in Washington State? Now that the health department is accredited, do you feel as though you are leaving the department in even better shape than it was?

Mary Selecky: Accreditation is really a quality improvement tool, and the standards that have been set by the Public Health Accreditation Board force you to examine whether you have the right processes in place for continuous, sustained quality improvement. And if you have found that you are not quite up to par in an area, then the processes help you ask what you will do to improve your performance in that area? The process helps you increase your performance, your effectiveness, and your accountability.

Public health touches people every single day—everybody in the state, from the moment they get up until they go to bed at night and even while they’re sleeping. This credential shows us that we have effective programs and measures in place to meet the needs of our communities. Drinking water systems are a good example. We regulate 16,000 drinking water systems, and I have a lot of drinking water engineers who are out in communities checking on water systems. I have to know that they’ve got a common set of operating procedures to assure the public that we’re looking out for their interests and when they turn on their tap from a municipal water system, that the water’s safe to drink. You can only do that when you have some procedures in place and that goes for the engineers, for laboratories or programs to make sure they are operating well in the community. Accreditation touches every part of the department.

NPH: How will you be promoting and explaining accreditation to policymakers?  

Mary Selecky: What I told our congressional delegation recently is that accreditation measures our capacity to protect food and water, to prepare and respond to health threats, to promote healthy behaviors, and to prevent diseases and injuries. This is about public health protections that are the basis of healthy people and healthy communities, and when you have an outside organization look at your materials, actually come on site, meet with many, many staff,  who say, “what we see really works well,” then you’ve demonstrated that you have met the community's needs. And it’s so valuable to hear suggestions of where you might put some extra attention.

>>Bonus Link: Read a recent NewPublicHealth interview with Mary Selecky about her 30-plus years in public health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.