HYDIn several pockets of Pinellas County, nearly half of residents are poor. Almost 20 percent of county residents can't access medical care, and more than 22 percent have a hard time finding healthy foods in their neighborhood. Black infants in Pinellas die at twice the rate as white infants, and domestic violence in the county is 30 percent higher than the state's overall average.
The Florida Department of Health collected this information as part of its recent Community Health Assessment, a process that challenged public health leaders and community members to examine these statistics and identify areas of need. Thirty organizations participated, from All Children's Hospital to the Public Defender's Office. Almost 1,000 residents gave feedback on the status of health in Pinellas.
As disturbing as these statistics are, what's hopeful is that Florida — a state that hasn't exactly made a name for itself by prioritizing public health — is taking steps to fix them. Florida is the first state in the nation to seek Public Health Accreditation for all 67 of its county health departments. Accreditation is a new process. It's administered by the Public Health Accreditation Board, created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to standardize and improve the quality of service provided by health departments across the United States.
The first step in accreditation was the Community Health Assessment. Next, the health department and its community partners used the new statistics to create a Community Health Improvement Plan, which will serve as the county's road map over the next five years. The plan identifies goals for Pinellas to meet by 2017:
• Sponsor classes on prenatal health to reduce disparities in infant mortality.
• Improve our response to domestic violence.
• Increase access to affordable, healthy foods.
Soon, the health department will start working with partner organizations to meet these goals. My role is to serve as the go-between and help keep the plan on track. I'm excited to help with accreditation and to take part in an innovative, statewide commitment to improving the well-being of Florida's citizens.
The health department's efforts provide a gold mine of local information and a special opportunity to contribute. Both the assessment and the improvement plan are available at pinellashealth.com, as is a mailbox for suggestions or concerns — PinellasCHAT@flhealth.gov. Your input can make the effort even stronger. Read the reports. Submit comments. Become informed about your county's health. While Americans are saturated with news about national health issues like diabetes and obesity, it's my experience that few residents are familiar with problem areas in their own communities.
Over the next five years, Pinellas is poised to make giant steps toward becoming a healthier place in which to live. I hope you stay tuned.
Jocelyn Howard is a program consultant at the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.