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Worcester Aims to be Healthiest City in New England

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

 

A team of health advocates in Worcester is focusing on one goal: Make the city the healthiest in New England by 2020. It is motivated in part by a national health survey earlier this year that ranked Worcester County ranked 11th out of 14 Massachusetts counties in terms of overall health.

“Those health rankings are used as a departure point,” said Monica Lowell, vice president community relations with the UMass Memorial Medical Center (UMMC). “Many people in this community are interested in knowing what’s happening in the overall health of the community. It’s not just public health officials, it’s hospitals, health centers and philanthropists.”

City's Future Health

They are now working on a Community Health Assessment (CHA), an information gathering exercise as part of Worcester’s Community Health Improvement Initiative. When all is said and done, they will have created the most city’s most comprehensive health plan to date, the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP).

“This is going to set the future for the community’s health over the next four years,” said Derek Brindisi, director of public health in Worcester.

The effort is a partnership between the city’s public health department, St. Vincent Hospital, UMMC and other community-based organizations, including Common Pathways. The latter agency is part of the Community Health Network Area (CHNA) that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health established in 1992.  St. Vincent and UMMH are taking part because, under the president's health care reform, hospitals are required to conduct their own health assessments.

The city was driven by the recommendations of a public health task force established in 2009 by City Manager Michael O’Brien. The task force delivered several recommendations, including a suggestion that the city conduct a community health assessment and prioritize the needs of its community.

A regional public health service was suggested, and the city has partnered with several surrounding communities including Shrewsbury, Leicester, West Boylston, Holden and Millbury. The task force also recommended the department become accredited. To do so, it needed to do a health assessment. Brindisi said the city wants to be accredited by 2015.

“You had all these organizations,” Brindisi said. “We all had conversations as to how we could pool our resources.”

Assessment Underway

The initial efforts included the gathering of data covering a range of health factors and issues, such as the rates of cancer, obesity and asthma in Worcester. The “Health of Worcester 2012” report, updated in March, was a comprehensive compilation of data covering family income, poverty levels, education and other factors that contribute to overall health. It outlined the priorities for the division of public health, including unhealthy weight, smoking and substance abuse. The report also included a youth survey.

Armed with the data and surveys, and after convening a Community Health Working group, health leaders and advocates rolled into Phase 2 of the initiative. The Healthy Worcester Planning/Improvement Initiative Advisory Council has hosted community town hall forums throughout the city, and has participated in several festivals.  Such efforts are part of gathering qualitative information to bear out the numbers and ensure health officials are focusing on the right area. 

Lowell said parents are concerned about their children's health.  “They all were very concerned about obesity. They can’t afford access to physical activity. They’re concerned about drugs and fast food.”

Lowell, who co-chairs the city’s health initiative, said parents told her they would pay $10 a month to provide access to physical activity for their children, but could not afford what many gyms charge.

The group will attend National Night Out Tuesday, Aug. 7.

End Goal

Brindisi said he hopes to have the assessment completed by the end of the month, at which time “50 key stakeholders” will convene to develop the Community Health Plan. Brindisi said that should be done by September. They will comprise a Strategic Planning Committee that will “review and vet the CHA" and set priorities, according to Brindisi. Residents will be an important part of that process.

“We prefer a bottom-up approach as opposed to top-down,” Brindisi said.

The assessment and subsequent strategic planning is “the community’s opportunity to work with us and provide us with information we may not be hearing about,” said Nicole Valentine, public relations manager and chronic disease prevention for the city’s public health department. “If they see us in the community, they should be encouraged to take our survey so we can make sure we’re taking care of the community as a whole.”

As for what happens after September, Brindisi said: “Well, then we’ll have to go to work. There will be a set of goals, but then we can select strategy and intervention. Each agency will have a role. It really is a coordinated community approach. This is extremely important. We are re-prioritizing the work of this department.”

 

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