News  |  January 24, 2018

Recently, an online planning tool created by the Garrett County Health Department (GCHD), mygarrettcounty.com, is changing the way public health is engaging with the digital community. For one rural Appalachian community, this platform was a radical shift away from the traditional bureaucratic process of creating a community health improvement plan led by the local health department.

In one year, they’ve increased awareness of the local health improvement planning process exponentially. Stakeholders are not only aware of this process, but nearly 5% of the entire population has actively engaged in formulating components of the next iteration of this plan. Transparent dialogue between local health officials, agency stakeholders, and the public continues to be a key component in improving equity and building capacity.

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The intention of the Universal Community Planning Tool (UCPT) is to help communities create a vision based on data collected about their current needs by meaningfully and transparently engaging all residents. UCPT is an innovation in public health utilizing open-source technology as a framework to equip communities in the creation of sustainable strategies from multi-sectoral partners that engages the community. This digital collaborative increase equity and builds capacity, helping communities make data-driven decisions.

Creating a vision for our county and incrementally measuring our progress toward the goals we set together has created a true culture of collaboration in Garrett County. Shelley Argabrite, Strategic Health Planner, GCHD

In the community forum of the adaptive planning tool, individuals have the space to openly discuss issues, such as substance abuse and mental health, and suggest community solutions to these concerns. 

Community feedback on such a large scale has informed measure development and prioritization, marking an important step toward ensuring that measures reflect what is most important in the community. Action groups were created to employ methods that will stimulate sustainable mobilization of the discussions in the forum and actualize strategies for community improvement. Within action groups, multi-sectoral partners work collectively on a strategy reporting incremental data that ensures responsiveness of the public health network in Garrett County.

Strategically investing in digital technologies allows people to collaborate more efficiently and work better as a team, which is helping us to achieve our desired outcomes. John Corbin, Public Affairs Specialist, GCHD

With well over 95,000 page views and 1,700 active planning partners in one year, the planning tool has completely changed the way Garrett County conducts strategic health planning. What’s most exciting is that we get to share this innovation with other communities! Our goal is to foster a culture of innovation in public health and successfully replicate and measure meaningful community engagement across our nation to improve health.

Nationally accredited local health departments are required to conduct a Community Needs Assessment, and based on that data, create a Community Health Improvement Plan. In theory this plan is supposed to engage the community and help track improvements in population health outcomes.

However, most health departments truly engage less than 5% of their total population in health planning processes according to the 2017 National Community Engagement Analysis Survey. This sobering statistic also held true in Garrett County.  It was clear that we had to make a change to dramatically increase equity. Revolutionizing the health planning process to create meaningful dialogue with residents and create an actionable plan centered on strategies that the community supports were accomplished.

With funding from PHNCI, GCHD aims to customize its planning tool for use by other communities. The UCPT digital collaborative framework is easily deployed on an open source WordPress content management system and is designed to seamlessly integrate because it to is an open source module for WordPress.

Significant portions of public health agencies already utilize WordPress making the possibility for replication of the UCPT vast. The modularity of the open source WordPress content management system is highly beneficial for communities that need to deploy comprehensive and multipurpose systems with minimal overhead. Because of the inherited modularity from building these tools upon the WordPress base, UCPT plug-ins are compatible with virtually every other plug-in and theme available for the WordPress content management system.

Through proof of concept pilots, this tool will be replicated at local and state levels to help communities create a data-informed vision about their current needs by meaningfully and transparently engaging all residents. This vision becomes actionable using the UCPT as a platform for the creation of a comprehensive and responsive community health improvement plan.

Additionally, the UCPT guides health departments through the process of creating a measurement framework to ensure the strategies they use to improve health in a community have metrics that specifically align with those strategies. Ultimately, the goal is for specific strategies to be measured as hyperlocal data becomes the primary method of program attribution.

GCHD’s innovation team has drawn in the most vulnerable residents (including those struggling with intergenerational poverty, chronic disease, and housing instability), county leadership, health care and social services sectors to address challenges and bridge economic, cultural, and health divides. This multifaceted collaborative effort that uses a robust, data-driven health planning process focused on reducing disparities in housing, education, employment, income, and health care has helped to earn the county a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 2017 Culture of Health Prize.

To celebrate their successes, GCHD held a community event last week, where a collective design of numerous agencies, businesses, and organizations working cohesively to embrace the spirit of the Culture of Health Prize, and utilize awarded funds to assist vulnerable and at-risk populations identified in Garrett County during one of the most critical months for assuring positive health outcomes. Two of the most prevalent issues that arose through the community planning processes conducted by the GCHD’s Population Health Unit are food insecurities and the lack of physical activity opportunities for vulnerable and at-risk populations.

To attempt to alleviate a small margin of these issues and provide resources and opportunities for families to connect with available resources within Garrett County, this event provided the first 200 households in attendance, regardless of income, with $20 food vouchers (1 voucher per address) to the Farmer’s Market in Oakland or Hilltop Fruit Market in Grantsville.

In addition, all in attendance had access to an open, free community swim, as well as opportunities to learn more about Garrett County’s innovative public health practices to improve population health, and access to a wide range of resources that are available within our community to assist residents year-round through coordination services and on-demand tools such as the Garrett County Resource Guide.

Stay up-to-date through the GCHD website as we continue to share success stories from the use of the UCPT planning tool, and download the necessary plug-ins to begin improving public health in your community!