NJ Health Department Gains National Recognition for Public Health Work

Lilo H. Stainton | June 14, 2017 | Health Care
National accreditation for successful public health programs puts NJDOH in very exclusive group of 25 other states, 62 communities

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After nearly three years of interactive review, New Jersey has received national acclaim for its work to assess public health, plan strategies for improving clinical outcomes and access to care, engage multiple stakeholders, measure changes, and revise course, if needed.

The state Department of Health announced Tuesday that it has received accreditation from the national Public Health Accreditation Board, a nonprofit organization that has assessed public health entities since 2011. The NJDOH joins 25 other states and 162 local health boards, including the Bloomfield Township department, that meet the same criteria, out of some 3,000 public health organizations nationwide.

While PHAB accreditation does not come with a financial award, those who have gone through the process said it helps organizations better focus their mission and existing resources and build stronger alliances with public and private partners. The designation can also help keep these stakeholders engaged and can sometimes be leveraged to secure outside funding.

‘The national standard’

“Accreditation has become the national standard for public health,” said Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett, who oversaw the application process in her former role as director of policy and strategic planning under former Commissioner Mary O’Dowd. Bennett has served as commissioner since August 2015, when O’Dowd left state government.

“The Department is proud to be nationally recognized for achieving standards in public health quality and performance,” Bennett said. “Through this three-year process, we evaluated and improved our services to ensure we are effectively meeting the public health needs of residents.”

Public health has been a major focus for Bennett, who launched an interdepartmental population health team last year that involves leaders from the state departments of Environmental Protection, Community Affairs, and other agencies to improve collaboration on public health strategies. Bennett held her second Population Health Summit last week, where participants reported on local prevention programs, efforts to expand access to care, and models to improve clinical outcomes.

Working with the board

New Jersey submitted the first part of its PHAB application for accreditation in the spring of 2015 and interaction with the board’s review team continued through February 2017, when the last element was filed, according to the DOH. At the start, only a handful of state health departments had been designated by the board, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Washington State was the first, in February 2013, and New York and four other states were recognized the following year, PHAB records showed.

In filing the application, the state’s accreditation team, led by Director of Population Health Colette Lamothe-Galette, collected and reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents; developed a strategic plan, quality improvement initiatives, and other internal management tools; and created Healthy New Jersey 2020, a blueprint to improve public health, eliminate health disparities, and better prevent diseases. The state also redesigned its website to make it more user-friendly and provide better access to public health data.

“The PHAB Accreditation decision for the New Jersey Department of Health is a testament to the hard work and dedication of its staff who are committed to providing quality programs and services to the residents of New Jersey,” Lamothe-Galette said. Several other local health departments in the Garden State, including those in Camden and Princeton, are now in the process of applying for accreditation, the state said.

Seven steps

Final accreditation involves a rigorous seven-step process, including a site visit and significant back and forth with the board, according to the DOH. The criteria cover a dozen “domains” like data analysis, community engagement, policy and legal review, workforce development, and governance, among others. There is a focus on developing evidence-based strategies and quality-control tools that enable the organization to continue to improve.

“Achieving accreditation indicates that the New Jersey Department of Health is dedicated to improving and protecting the health of the community by striving to continuously improve the quality of the services it delivers,” said Dr. Ray “Bud” Nicola, chair of PHAB’s board of directors. “With an ever-increasing number of health departments now applying for and becoming accredited, you will be able to expect to receive the same quality of public health services wherever you go in the United States.”

While the national acclaim is new, DOH officials note that the work involved in accreditation is already bearing fruit. Healthy New Jersey 2020, which got underway in 2008, has helped the state reduce smoking rates, heart disease, HIV/AIDS transmission, and hospitalization from asthma — a condition that is exacerbated by heat, heavy pollen, and other effects of global warming, experts warn.

The 10-year Healthy New Jersey 2020 plan “by itself is a huge success, because it sets the foundation for the future,” then commissioner O’Dowd said in late 2013, as the state was developing its PHAB application.