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First accreditation of health department expected this year.

Six months after the launch of a landmark national program to accredit the nation's health departments, a new era in public health is on its way. The Public Health Accreditation Board--the non-profit organization charged with overseeing the voluntary accreditation program--is receiving applications and interest each week from health departments around the country.

As of late March, 63 health departments--59 local, three state and one tribal--had submitted applications to the Public Health Accreditation Board and were working their way through the accreditation process. Of the 63, 19 had completed their in-person training and were uploading their documentation for peer review, according to Kaye Bender, PhD, RN, FAAN, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based organization.

"Those first 19 health departments are really leading the way," Bender told The Nation's Health. "They are doing very well. They are also identifying really good questions that will help health departments coming along behind them to prepare."

With the goal of protecting and improving Americans' health, accreditation is expected to advance the quality and performance of all of the nation's health departments. The program--developed collaboratively by hundreds of public health practitioners, researchers and educators--sets measures and standards by which more than 3,000 state, local, territorial and tribal health departments can improve their services, value and accountability.

The first accreditation decision will likely be announced this year, Bender said.

"The best I can say about that is sometime in 2012, and the reason is that (the board) intends to get this right rather than to do it fast," she said. "Working with the applicant health department, their site review team and our Accreditation Committee, we will award the first accreditation decisions when all of the relevant processes have been completed to everyone's satisfaction. It's not something we can rush."

Standing by to support health departments as they get ready to apply for accreditation, the National Association of County and City Health Officials is providing technical assistance and resources to local health departments at all levels of accreditation readiness and is tailoring its assistance to each individual agency's needs, said NACCHO Executive Director Robert Pestronk.

More than 20 local health departments are using NACCHO funding to develop accreditation and quality improvement plans.

"Accreditation is a meaningful way for local health departments to develop a culture of continuous quality improvement," Pestronk said. "Accreditation is one important means of improving the public's health."

The board is highlighting information health departments need to know via a new feature called "Word on the Street," which appears in the board's online newsletter, said Mark Paepcke, the organization's chief administrative officer.

"We get a lot of questions from health departments, so we created 'Word on the Street' to stay true to our quality improvement nature and convey best practices," Paepcke said.

Within days of the accreditation program's launch in September, the Spokane Regional Health District in Spokane, Wash., logged onto the Public Health Accreditation Board website to begin the process, said Torney Smith, MS, the agency's administrator.

"I think we were among the earliest to apply, though that is simply the first step in the process," Smith said. "It is my hope that our enthusiasm has encouraged others to do the same. Our dream has been to be the very first to achieve accreditation. We believe it is critically important to demonstrate the quality of performance for our agency to the public, policymakers and funders."

Going through the process has made the department better, helped identify some areas that needed to be strengthened and pinpointed some activities that the agency should have been performing, but was not, Smith said.

"Those have been addressed and we are better for it," Smith told The Nation's Health.

"This is about serving our public as well as we can,"he said. "Learning we were not doing the best we could was humbling and made us realize the need to be open to our shortcomings. By doing so we are getting better and serving our public better."

Smith said he supports the concept of accreditation strongly and that having an outside organization such as the Public Health Accreditation Board evaluate his agency provides objectivity about its strengths and areas to improve on.

"At first it was a bit frightening to show our shortcomings," Smith said. "Now it feels more like an opportunity to get better. (The board) has done a great job of organizing broad input to create standards that are relevant to most health departments, and I know they will evolve over time. Right now, they provide a meaningful measuring stick for us."

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Author:Johnson, Teddi Dineley
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:May 1, 2012
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