Nation's first public health department accreditation launched

Sep 14, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Public health officials today announced the launch of the first national accreditation program for health departments, a move designed to create a voluntary national standard to measure and improve the performance across a range of health departments, from local to state.

The group of national and local leaders made the announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

In 2007 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) created the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB) to create, manage, and promote national public health accreditation, according to a statement today from the PHAB. Public health leaders from national, tribal, state, and local levels helped develop the accreditation, it said.

Kaye Bender, RN, PhD, president and CEO of PHAB, said in the statement that the group's vision is to create a reliable national standard for public health. "PHAB supports health departments in achieving this standard by recognizing the important work they do and by providing support to improve their services," she said.

Accreditation, granted for 5 years at a time, sets consistent standards to allow people in different states and towns to have access to the same range and quality of services, according to the PHAB. The standards will help departments make the most of scarce resources by encouraging strategic investments, demonstrating accountability to residents and elected officials, and promoting innovation.

Bender told CIDRAP News that, for example, 2 of the 12 accreditation domains address disease surveillance. Health departments that apply will show how they analyze data and use the results to respond, using experiences such as foodborne illness outbreaks, measles outbreaks, or environmental public health emergencies. She added that PHAB's reviewers will be comparing the responses against science-based public health principles.

Analysis of infectious disease and emergency response practices will also include lab and epidemiology support and communications practices, Bender said.

The standards will evolve as evidence-based practices in public health advance, she said. "These standards and measures are version 1.0 for a reason," she said, emphasizing that the PHAB will continue to improve and refine its own measures. "This is about a continuum, not just a plaque on the wall."

Bender said the voluntary nature of the accreditation program is one of its important features. "We don't want people to just check items off a list and forget about them for 5 years. We want accreditation to mean something," she said.

James Marks, MD, MPH, senior vice president and director of the RWJF's health group, said in the statement that the launch of the system is well-timed, given the tough economic climates health departments face. "With shrinking budgets and a growing number of health challenges to address, there has never been a more important time for public health departments to focus on the best and most efficient ways to keep people healthy," he said.

The CDC's Director of the Office for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support, Judith A. Monroe, MD, said in the statement that accreditation is a powerful way to recognize health departments for doing a good job, while motivating them to keep improving. "The launch of this program is a major milestone for public health, and we applaud the hundreds of national, state, tribal, and local public health practitioners who played a role in its development," she said.

At a press briefing today, Monroe said federal agencies that support health departments, especially the CDC, are uniquely positioned to play a role in providing incentives to those who choose to pursue accreditation.

The National Public Health Improvement Initiative, part of the Affordable Care Act, in its first year provided funds to help departments start preparing for accreditation. The initiative recently released its second year of funding, which included $33.5 million to 74 state, tribal, local, and territorial grantees.

The PHAB's Web site includes the latest accreditation materials, a report on a PHAB beta test, and news updates about the system.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) released a statement today commending the PHAB's launch. Lillian Shirley, NACCHO president, said accreditation is a key to fulfilling the pledge to people.

"We are directly responsible for those who live, work, and learn in our jurisdictions. We owe it to our communities to ensure and to document that we meet the minimum standards they have the right to expect," said Shirley, who is also director of the Multnomah County Health Department in Oregon.

NACCHO has been involved in developing the accreditation program and has resources on its Web site to help local health departments prepare to apply for and earn accreditation, including an overview, toolkits, and examples of improvements.

Debra Burns, with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Office of Performance Improvement, told CIDRAP News that the MDH and representatives from the state's local health departments have participated in a work group called the State Community Health Services Advisory Committee that reviewed the standards while they were being developed and took quick self-assessments. She said the MDH's goal is to apply for accreditation in 2013, with local health departments being in a position to apply in 2015.

Pulling together the documentation for accreditation will involve a lot of work, and Minnesota officials will need to ensure that items such as a state health improvement plan and quality improvement plans align with the standards, Burns said, adding that the essential public health services, however, are already in place.

See also:

Sep 14 PHAB press release

PHAB Web site

Sep 14 NACCHO press release

NACCHO public health accreditation toolkit

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