Accreditation: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Georgia Heise

May 15, 2013, 1:08 PM


The Three Rivers district health department in Owenton, Kentucky was one of three health departments in that state and eleven in the country to receive national public health accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board. NewPublicHealth has been speaking with directors from accredited health departments about the value of the credential; how it can change their operations and outcomes; and what they’d like to share with departments considering applying for the credential. We recently spoke with Georgia Heise, DrPH, Three Rivers’ health director and a vice president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, about the benefits she sees from both the application process and the new status accreditation confers.

NewPublicHealth: What has the reaction been from community members and policymakers to the news that you’re now accredited?

Georgia Heise: It has been wonderful. Our health department has talked about accreditation from the day we started working on it, so people have been waiting to see what the decision was going to be. We’ve gotten flowers, cards, letters, and emails and there have been celebrations hosted by us and by others. And we did get some attention from policymakers, which was wonderful.

We have, for the past three years now, introduced into the Kentucky legislative process a bill that would require health departments in Kentucky to be accredited by 2020. We haven’t got that bill approved yet, but we continue to work on it and we think we will eventually. But that effort means that the legislators are familiar with the concept of accreditation. While maybe they haven’t paid that much attention to it before, they’re paying more attention now because Kentucky had three health departments receive accreditation in the first round and that’s gotten some attention statewide.

NPH: In terms of the process, what has been harder than you thought and what was easier

Heise: What was easy was the fact that we had been moving toward the processes that were required for accreditation for years prior to actually applying. So, producing the documentation that was needed had been in the works. That made gathering the data together easier than I thought it would be.

Managing the actual papers and uploading the documentation was a little trickier than I thought, but now that we’ve done it once I believe it will be much easier next time. One thing we’ve learned is to have electronic copies of documentation already in hand.

NPH: How are you publicizing the credential and how will you show its impact?

Heise: I want to tie it to improved health outcomes and also stability of the health department financially. So, those are the kind of things I talk about when I discuss it. We’ve put out news releases and I’ve been interviewed by a lot of people. I’ve been getting phone calls just about every day with someone wanting to talk about accreditation in some way or another, both locally and farther away. We recently had our Kentucky Public Health Association Conference and I discussed it there numerous times and the state health commissioner recognized the health department for becoming accredited. But every time I have the opportunity to talk about it I say it’s not the plaque on the wall that’s the important thing—what’re important are the processes it represents. That is what’s going to improve the health status of our district of Kentucky. It makes it important to other people if it can demonstrate that their health department is using their funds in the most efficient, effective way possible. But I think the real key down the road will be demonstrating that accredited health departments can show improved health outcomes.

NPH: What do health departments that haven’t yet applied for accreditation need to know?

Heise: One critical thing is: why wouldn’t they want to apply? It is kind of a playbook for how to run a health department. It is not a program or a project—it is an operations tool, and it is not one size fits all. It over and over and over stresses the opportunity to assess needs in your community and evaluate the needs and determine how to make changes if necessary. I’ve heard health departments say it costs too much money or it’s just another project or it’s not going to help us. So I respond by explaining that I see it as a playbook. Accreditation is going to show you how to run your health department in a way that it can be stable, in a way that you can collect data and demonstrate to your public that you are using their funds efficiently. And it’s also a way to train employees in your health department that this is what public health is, this is what we should be doing.

So, the process is very valuable. If you are a health department that has a ways to go, this will show you how to get there. Our health department is much stronger because of the accreditation process. Our relationships with our community are much stronger. Our health department was strong anyway, and now it’s even better.

NPH: What quality improvement changes do you think accreditation is bringing to public health?

Heise: I feel that accreditation will bring public health professionals to the realization that their job is ever changing and that their job is not actually a particular service or program or product. It is to stay on top of what the need is in the community and to address that need and to find the funding to make that happen—and that is an ever-changing process. My hope is that all health departments embrace accreditation and that it brings to all of us in the field the realization that we have to be continually evaluating, assessing and meeting the need, not just chasing the dollars for health care services we provide.

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