Chicago Public Health: Q&A with Bechara Choucair

Aug 27, 2013, 1:29 PM

Bechara Choucair, MD, MS, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health Bechara Choucair, MD, MS, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health

Last week the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB) awarded five-year national accreditation status to five public health departments, bringing the number of health departments now accredited to 19 since the credential was launched two years ago. Hundreds more health departments are currently preparing to apply for accreditation, which includes a peer-reviewed assessment process to ensure it meets or exceeds a set of public health quality standards and measures. Among the newly accredited is the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"This is an important achievement and recognition that highlights the city of Chicago’s ongoing commitment to health and wellness on the part of all of our residents,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement issued by PHAB.  "We are focused on policies that will help all Chicagoans and their families enjoy the highest quality of life, [and w]e will continue to strive to make Chicago one of the healthiest cities in the world."

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Bechara Choucair, MD, MS, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, about the value of accreditation for improving the health of the community—and about how this effort supports Healthy Chicago, the city’s public health agenda.

>>Read more about Healthy Chicago in a previous NewPublicHealth Q&A with Choucair.

NewPublicHealth: You’re one of the first public health departments to be accredited. How did that happen so quickly?

Bechara Choucair: When we released Healthy Chicago in 2011, one of the strategies we identified was to obtain accreditation. We wanted to be the first big city to earn the credential. It took us 18 months and we are excited that we are the first big city to be accredited and the first in Illinois. And one of the added bonuses of accreditation is a sense of pride. It says a lot to our staff, residents and our mayor.

NPH: A community health assessment is required as part of the accreditation application. What did Chicago’s community health assessments entail?

Choucair: The Chicago Department of Public Health has performed community assessments all along. It has been part of our planning and how we’ve actively monitored the health of our residents. We saw the need to monitor risk factors and as a result we came up with an approach that allowed us to look at multiple issues at the same time. An example would be looking issues such as sexually transmitted infections, and obesity prevention in teens and it all came under one umbrella of adolescent intervention. We identified 12 priorities and almost 200 strategies and we knew that if we committed to them, health would improve and, honestly, we’re starting to see that. For example, the obesity rate for kids entering kindergarten is in a reversal trend and we’re seeing our teen birth rate going down faster than in the rest of the country—a 33 percent decline in the last ten years or so. Seeing good public health outcomes shows that our strategies are paying off.

NPH: What can other cities learn from you about applying for, and benefitting from, accreditation?

Choucair: The two key things are about leadership and team work and in what lens we view accreditation. On leadership and team work, it has to come from the top as well as from the staff’s commitment. That builds an environment where the accreditation process will be a solid one. The second thing is to look at accreditation not as an additional program, but more about looking at your health department’s existing work and how you document that work and build quality improvement processes into the work you do on a day to day basis. Look at accreditation that way, and you’re much more likely to succeed.  

NPH: How important has it been to Chicago to have partners in health and non-health sectors to work with?

Choucair: Partnership development and collaboration are key to making Healthy Chicago a success story. I set a challenge in Chicago that if your logo is not on the slide I share when we talk about partnerships, then we need to talk. Improving the health of Chicago is about pushing the envelope and making those partnerships.

Healthy Chicago's many cross-sector partnerships Healthy Chicago's many cross-sector partnerships

There are many examples of critical partners who are helping to improve population health in Chicago. We work with 15 city agencies to make Healthy Chicago a success story. For example, working with the Chicago Department of Transportation, we now have more than 35 miles of protected bike lanes in our city and we will soon have 3,000 bikes throughout the city and more than 300 stations as part of our new bike share program, which gives an added mode of transportation and physical activity.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and LISC Chicago, which help connect communities with resources they need to become healthier and stronger, have together developed a Play Streets program. On a regular basis, we block off streets in the city so parents and kids can do such things as take a zumba class and play with hula hoops and get out and be physically active.  

The GE Foundation, Northwestern University and a family health center in Chicago collaborated and identified two neighborhoods with highest rates of cardiovascular disease, and now we’re doing mass screenings. Such partnerships did not exist before Healthy Chicago.

>>Bonus Link: Read more on public health department accreditation.

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