The WEDCO District Health Department recently received word it had earned national accreditation status from the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB), making it one of 15 health departments in Kentucky to earn that distinction.

“Accreditation for local health departments is fairly new. We are one of less than 300 around the nation that is accredited,” said Dr. Crystal Miller, public health director for WEDCO. “Health departments never had an accrediting body because we act as a state agency in a lot of ways.”

The process involved 12 domains, or areas, that PHAB ensures the accredited departments are operating at the highest standard possible, Miller said. The first 10 domains address essential public health services, domain 11 addresses management and administration and domain 12 addresses governance.

“We started this venture five years ago, and that sounds like a long time, but it really is a gruelling process,” she said. “It just isn’t about you and what you are doing in the health department. It is about how you are connected to community partners and what you are doing from a preparedness standpoint and meeting community needs.”

WEDCO had to submit lots of documentation online, then PHAB sends site visitors to go through all the documentation, meet with staff and community, asking the community how WEDCO responds to them. The onsite reviewers take their findings to the board for approval.

“It was a humbling and fun experience for the staff,” Miller said. “It was a pat on the back for them because a lot of times this is a thankless field to do the things necessary that people may or may not understand.”

Getting to see how the public really depends on the local health departments was beneficial, she said.

“We don’t always see that because we are in the trenches doing what we need to be doing and moving on to the next problem.” Miller said.

Being accredited could help with future funding, but more importantly, improved care for the public, Miller said.

“There has been a lot of talk about tying funding to accreditation, but we have not seen that yet,” she said. “It is not about the stamp for us. Yes that is nice, but moreso the process and continual improvement and what it means to document the processes we have. Why it is important to be a strong community partner. Why it is important to assess data.

“We have a variety of staff members, some having worked there 30 years, when literally we were providing clinical and environmental services. Public health has shifted now where we are doing more education and community than clinical because we have other providers doing that. We are getting out of clinical service more than ever so educating our staff on how to do things differently is important.

“It’s great to say we are accredited. But we don’t get any more money for that, but hopefully it gives our community some confidence in knowing we meet a national standard in the services we provide,” she said. “It was important for our staff to learn the importance to being connected to community and looking at data and not saying well this is the way we’ve always done it. We’ve learned to be more efficient through this process.”

Efficiency is important as the state’s current pension crisis is impacting health departments.

“As it stands, we turned in a budget with the 84% pension rate from the 47% and that added $1.5 million to our bottom line,” Miller said.

 “Obviously that impacts us more than ever. We have to earn our keep more than ever. We are a lean department and making decisions on what is mandated for us to do. For example, cancer screenings is a service we have provided but we are not mandated to provide, so we are finding community partners to offer those screenings.

“We are still providing and meeting community needs but doing it more efficiently. We hope the special session happens and we can go back to the 47% we were paying.”

Steve McClain can be reached at smcclain@news-graphic.com.

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