Top 10 health list reflects concerns of community

Lots of Top 10 lists were revealed during the last weeks of 2012. San Juan Basin Health concluded its own counting down of top health issues in Archuleta and La Plata counties.

Over the last six months, a series of public and internal meetings have been held and an online survey conducted to help prioritize the plethora of legitimate entries.

“We heard voices of over 150 people that are invested and interested in our community’s health. Eighty-five responded to the online survey,” said Molly Gutilla, doctorate public health student intern who coordinated the prioritization process.

All public-health agencies in Colorado are charged with creating a Public Health Improvement Plan in 2013. The completed health assessment and selecting of a top priority(s) were the first steps.

After obesity, priorities include mental health, substance abuse, clean air and water, and oral health. Most people found it incredibly difficult to choose between these. Interesting conversations took place among staff and community members about what is most important and immediate concern to the community, what was already being done or on its way, which evidence-based strategies could be implemented and what strengths public health could bring. So, for example, San Juan Basin Health is already implementing an effective public-health strategy to improve oral health through its Southwest Smile Makers program in the schools, and that’s a reason why some people ranked it fifth.

After combining votes in Archuleta and La Plata county meetings, obesity ranked as the top health issue. Many factors went into people’s decisions. One key seemed to be obesity’s effect on so many other health issues down the line; if addressed, it could help reduce associated health risks and decrease need to access care. This is exactly what public health traditionally has done and should be doing.

Historically, we have responded to health problems by looking upstream at the root causes and worked to address them whether it was advocating for sewage systems or safe drinking water or reducing smoking. Our health problems evolve and change over time. While there are plenty of professionals working to help individuals cope with and overcome their health conditions, public health is charged with identifying and addressing the reasons why so many are getting sick or injured to begin with. Obesity is a perfect example – public health can play a key role in decreasing its prevalence.

While obesity came out on top of public-health issues, access to care was the overwhelming No. 1 need “screamed” by people. This multilayered problem needs addressing community-wide, with some actions required on a higher political-economic level. Even so, it will be included into the Public Health Improvement Plan.

“It’s not our plan, it’s a plan for community health and will include strategies to address obesity and access to care,” Gutilla said. “Over the next five years, it’ll take collaboration from community partners and ultimately most everyone to turn it into action.”

Jane Looney is the communications director for the San Juan Basin Health Department.