Gretchen Sampson, RN, MPH, director of the Polk County Health Department in Balsam Lake, Wisc., is the winner of the 2012 Milton and Ruth Roemer Prize for Creative Local Public Health Work.

Gretchen Sampson, RN, MPH, director of the Polk County Health Department in Balsam Lake, Wisc., is the winner of the 2012 Milton and Ruth Roemer Prize for Creative Local Public Health Work. Sampson, an APHA member, was recognized for demonstrating exceptionally creative and innovative local public health work that protects, advances or recovers the health of the general population or special populations, including the implementation of a regional public health preparedness consortium that has become a national model for local health departments. In a conversation with Public Health Newswire, Sampson discusses the importance of sharing information during a time of tight resources, embracing technology and the value of public health accreditation.

Q: What prompted you to come up with the idea for the regional public health preparedness consortium?

I wish I was that smart, but I can’t take the credit for the idea of public health preparedness consortia. In 2002, public health preparedness funds started flowing to the states and in Wisconsin, the state health department — under the direction of the Division of Public Health Administrator John Chapin — decided that the concept of a regionally structured multi-county consortium was a model worth exploring to enhance readiness for public health emergencies. The original idea was to have 12 consortia configured in our state with one fiscal agent to manage the overall staffing and day-to-day operations of each regional organization. Through discussions with the Polk County Board of Health, it was clear that even though Polk County was not the geographic center of our region, we were well positioned to take on the role of fiscal agent and overall lead agency for the preparedness consortium in Western Wisconsin.

I am proud to say we moved very quickly to staff our Consortium with a director, epidemiologist, education and training coordinator and program assistant.  Soon to follow was a nimble organizational structure with bylaws outlining processes that the Consortium would follow to carry out its work; memorandums of understanding between the fiscal agent and all member agencies noting responsibilities of each, a resource rich website that housed numerous preparedness plans and training materials developed by the Consortium as well as detailed work plans that assisted member agencies in meeting their annual grant objectives. We established partnerships with the hospital preparedness program, emergency management, emergency medical services and regional trauma advisory council groups for the purposes of coordinating emergency response. Exercises were developed to test preparedness response plans and our Consortium staff were key in the exercise design process statewide.  Despite the dissolution of the consortium model by the state health department two years ago, the western region consortium remains a successful and viable public health preparedness model in Wisconsin.

Q: How gratifying is it that the consortium not only has benefited more than 20 local health departments and tribes in Wisconsin as well as health departments across the state but also has become a nationally recognized model?

It is extremely gratifying to know that our consortium has been of benefit and assistance to local health departments and tribes in western Wisconsin as well as a significant resource for other organizations statewide. With the diminished capacity of local health departments due to funding challenges and staffing reductions, anytime you can share response plans, training resources, exercise scenarios and other expertise, it boosts infrastructure of our entire public health system. Our Consortium has been nationally recognized for outstanding work done by staff around the following plans: Mass Fatality Response, Pandemic Flu, Community Sheltering, and a Workforce Competency Development Plan, which is tied to three competency sets. Prior to the Consortium era, these plans were non-existent in Wisconsin local health departments. It is a definitely a pleasure working with energetic and talented colleagues who are committed to improving public heath readiness and response capacity in our county, region and state.

Q: How important is it for health departments to embrace electronic documentation (such as the OMAHA system for public health nursing) and other advancements in information technology?

It is critical to move our health departments into the electronic age for many reasons. The most important is that accurate, real time data are key in proving outcomes of public health interventions in population health improvement efforts. With the Affordable Care Act mandating data collection around “meaningful use,” we can now access information that, previously, was next to impossible to collect.  For rural counties, county level data has been very difficult to come by, so accurately assessing the health status of the jurisdiction is perennially challenging. Electronic medical records, coupled with other population health data systems, will enhance our access to better information, which will guide community health improvement efforts in a remarkably better way. The OMAHA system of documentation has been around for decades, and my organization has been using it since 1981. It has standardized our clinical and community based documentation and helped us document outcomes of our interventions. With OMAHA now embedded in public health clinical software programs, services we provide and outcomes we achieve can be much more readily available and presentable to our constituent groups including funders…and who in governmental health doesn’t need more funding?

Q: As someone who feels strongly about the need to strengthen public health — you co-authored the 2011 APHA policy statement on “Public Health Accreditation as a Means to Strengthen Governmental Public Health Systems in the U.S.” and regularly speak to lawmakers on the issue — can you describe ways the public health community can help in this effort?

I believe there is still a very big learning curve for our local, state and federal representatives about the scope and work of public health. Just today, I was part of a “candidate forum” for state legislative races in our region which focused on public health issues such as access to oral health care, tobacco and alcohol use, community heath improvement and public health funding. Most candidates agreed these were all very important issues, but had difficulty suggesting creative ways to strengthen local and state capacity to address them. All the candidates agreed that they had learned a lot just by hearing our questions and subsequent discussion. Several of the Public Health Accreditation Board standards address legislative advocacy and reinforce how important continuing education to our legislators about public health issues is.  Action alerts requesting advocacy to our representatives on these issues require our attention, and we need to take time to respond to them.  I believe national voluntary accreditation is a building block that health departments can capitalize on in order to strengthen and standardize public health practice, which will ultimately strengthen our public health system. Our staff learned so much from going through the accreditation preparation process, and our health department is definitely a better organization because of it. If all health departments met the Public Health Accreditation Board standards, just think how much stronger our public health system could be.

Sampson received the Milton and Ruth Roember Prize for Creative and Local Public Health Work during the recent 140th APHA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.