Nestled in the Blue Ridge mountain range is a valley with a blend of urban and rural areas that make up Buncombe County, N.C., and the eclectic county seat of Asheville. Across this picturesque landscape a new Culture of Health is taking root. With the support of more than 70 organizations and thousands of individuals, the community is coming together to improve health outcomes—now and for generations to come.
“The thing that is really driving us forward is an interest in being the healthiest community in the country,” said Buncombe County Health Director Gibbie Harris. “We have people who are interested in social justice, and a desire to improve the lives of our friends and neighbors. That is more of an incentive for us than anything else.”
Buncombe County exemplifies the concept that improved collaboration among groups can lead to better health for residents.
In 2013, Buncombe County Health and Human Services convened the Public Health Advisory Council. The leadership council includes an array of community stakeholders, including the YMCA of Western North Carolina, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, health care professionals, transportation experts and environmental organizations, among others. This broad-based group is looking at all aspects of life in the county in order to address the multitude of forces that impact health. The mission of the council is to bring together individuals, families, and local leaders to make Buncombe County a community where healthy choices are easy to make and are supported by the environment. The council serves as a catalyst for providing leadership, support, and coordination to assist the community in reaching its health goals—spreading Buncombe County’s success and causing a ripple effect into all of Western North Carolina.
The Council has led and supported a number of initiatives, including the Innovative Approaches project, which is focused on bringing pediatricians, parents, and support agencies together to improve quality of care for children with special health care needs. Through this program, electronic health records have been customized to ensure that special needs children receive customized services during doctor’s visits, and handbooks have been created for parents so they can keep all the information about their child in one place.
Harris cited some of the specific community health wins supported by the Council, including a concerted approach for the community’s physicians in addressing both obesity and asthma; reducing secondhand smoke through collaborative efforts to make multi-unit housing complexes smoke-free; and working with area “tailgate markets” and larger farmer’s markets to accept EBT food assistance in exchange for healthy foods.
“Community partners are excited about working together,” said Harris. “The focus of organizations has shifted to achieving outcomes for our community as a whole. We’re early in this process, but we are already starting to see some benefits of this work.”