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NJ Health Commissioner Details Plans to Seek National Accreditation

O’Dowd lays out to local officials long-term statewide goals to improve health services

NJ Commissioner of Health Mary E. O'Dowd
NJ Commissioner of Health Mary E. O'Dowd

New Jersey is seeking to become the third state in the country to have a nationally accredited health department, part of an effort to continually improve health services.

Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said the state will see several benefits from accreditation, which has already led state health officials to develop a strategic plan for the future. She offered details of that plan at a gathering yesterday of county and municipal health officials during the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities conference.

The strategic plan includes initiatives to improve the health of newborn babies, increase residents’ access to primary care and boost the rate of childhood immunization, as well as efforts to stem rising problems with heart disease and obesity.

O’Dowd has also been overseeing the state effort to be accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board, a national nonprofit that aims to set standards for health departments and push them to continuously improve. The state expressed an interest in applying in October and plans to apply in the spring. O’Dowd said the state’s has already benefited from preparing for the process, by developing the strategic plan.

“We have programs going on throughout the department – big, little, small – focused on how do we deliver our service and how can we improve that quality,” O’Dowd said, adding that aim is to involve every state health worker through training in “continuous quality improvement,” a data-based approach to improving quality.

The strategic plan includes an initiative to improve babies’ health, beginning with making sure that women are healthy even before they are pregnant. “We know that a healthier woman, before she is pregnant, leads to a healthier outcome for her child,” she said.

In addition, the state is developing initiatives to help women while they are pregnant, as well as separate efforts to help newborns and older infants. Some progress has already occurred in reducing the percentage of babies that are born premature. The March of Dimes, which tracks this statistic, has improved the state’s grade from “D” to “B” over the past five years.

A key part of efforts to improve birth outcomes is screening women and children and referring them to the appropriate care providers, according to the commissioner.

“It’s still not good enough,” O’Dowd said of the state’s improvement. “We are focused on continuing to achieve a better mark moving forward.”

David Knowlton, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, said efforts like his organization’s Mayor’s Wellness Campaign can help babies in the state. He pointed to research showing the link between infant health and whether mothers exercised during the pregnancy.

This effort includes a state initiative that has been developed over the past several years, Healthy New Jersey 2020, which sets a series of targets for the state to reach by that year. O’Dowd said it will be important to carefully measure progress to see which state programs are effective.

“That by itself is a huge success, because it sets the foundation for the future,” she said.

The Healthy New Jersey 2020 targets include increasing the portion of residents with a primary-care provider from 83.5 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2020, and reducing the infant death rate from 5.1 per 1,000 births in 2007 to 4.8 in 2020.

In addition, the targets include increasing the percentage of children younger than 3 who have been vaccinated from 74 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2020; reducing the number of residents with coronary heart disease from 140.1 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 112.1 per 100,000 in 2020; and stopping the growth in the obesity rate, which was 23.8 percent of adults in 2011 and 10.3 percent of high schoolers in 2009.

O’Dowd also talked about state health officials’ efforts to help local communities recover from Hurricane Sandy and prepare for future storms.

This includes improving efforts to screen the level of lead in children’s blood, since storm-caused damage to buildings and soil can increase lead exposure. The state’s also directed federal aid toward behavioral health screening and preparing for the health effects of future emergencies, such as preparing to help distribute prescription medication to residents who’ve been relocated by disasters like Sandy.

Three federally funded studies also are looking at the health effects from the storm, including how it affected work-related injuries and illnesses.

O’Dowd spoke at a session hosted by the New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association.

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