Kaye Bender, PhD, RN, FAAN, is president and CEO of the Public Health Accreditation Board, which after years of research and testing, launched the national voluntary public health accreditation program in September 2011. In addition to taking on public health accreditation, Bender spent six years as dean of the School of Nursing and vice chancellor for nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. She has also served at both the state and local levels within the Mississippi State Department of Health. A longtime member of APHA, Bender is currently chair of the Association’s Education Board and was awarded APHA’s 2011 Executive Director Citation for her exceptional, distinguished service to the Association.


Kaye Bender headshotQ: What is public health accreditation and why do you believe it’s an important goal for health departments at all governmental levels to strive toward? In other words, what is the value that accreditation can bring to a public health department?

Public health accreditation is the measurement of a health department’s performance against a nationally recognized set of practice-focused, evidence-based standards. The national public health accreditation program administered by the Public Health Accreditation Board has been developed on the principles of quality improvement. Accreditation is a means by which health departments can demonstrate their interest in being transparent and accountable in their operations.

Q: Last year, the Public Health Accreditation Board launched the first national accreditation program for public health departments. In a news release announcing the launch, you said the board’s “vision for accreditation is to create a reliable national standard for public health.” What are the benefits of a national standard vs. local or regional standards?

Health departments who are using the accreditation standards and measures have told us that it has been very helpful to have national consensus about what a health department’s role is. Even though we have had the 10 Essential Public Health Services framework and the three core functions (assessment, policy development and assurance) of public health for a while, health departments tell us that having accreditation standards puts it all together for them in such a way that they have a good roadmap to guide their work.

Q: Can you give a couple of examples where accreditation is working especially well? Also, can one public health agency’s successful accreditation process be easily adopted by agencies in other communities that want to achieve accreditation?

Not yet. We have over 50 applications in the accreditation pipeline, but none of them have been accredited yet. So, the good stories about accreditation’s impact are yet to come. What we can tell you is that health departments who participated in our beta test used words like “it jump-started our journey toward establishing a culture of quality improvement” and “it gave us a framework for setting our priorities in difficult economic times.” We expect to hear more of those comments as health departments become accredited. Stories about health departments’ perspectives on accreditation can be found in a webcast on our website.

Q: How does accreditation empower public health agencies to continually improve the efficiency and quality of their services? 

First, it helps health departments to measure themselves against standards that other health departments are also using. Second, there is a peer review component to the accreditation process. So, health departments can have access to experts in their field — people who do what they do every day, but might see it through a different lens. Finally, PHAB will be working with the accredited health departments on areas that are identified for quality improvement to keep the momentum going and to help health departments continue to assess their progress and celebrate their accomplishments.

Q: How can accreditation help health departments survive, or even thrive, in a time of tight budgets and declining funds?

In many communities, the health department is almost invisible to the public. That “out of sight, out of mind” image has, for some, created opportunities for funding cuts that create great difficulties for the health department. Accreditation as a process has been shown to help other industries define who they are and then to involve their communities of interest in assessing their work. It has also been shown to help entities set priorities and focus on the most significant parts of their industry. PHAB has already heard of health departments who are preparing for accreditation who have used this window of opportunity to do the same for public health. And, then, once a health department is accredited, who is going to actively participate in reducing resources that might jeopardize that accreditation status?

Q: What can organizations such as APHA do to help push the accreditation movement forward?

Keep encouraging health departments to give it a try. It is voluntary, but honestly I can’t imagine a health department NOT wanting to be accredited. It would give them an opportunity to tell the communities they serve that they are interested in doing the best job possible. APHA and other national public health organizations can also assist health departments in learning about the accreditation process and in preparing to become accredited. It is a lot of work, but it really isn’t as daunting as some health departments might think. We need to encourage all health departments to set accreditation as a goal in their future!

To learn more about public health accreditation, visit http://www.phaboard.org/.