Why is the Health Department Here?

Why is the Health Department Here?

Public health departments are getting more involved in cross-sector partnerships—here are seven ways public health professionals can help your work.

“Do you think the potato salad has been out too long?” This used to be the type of question community members would ask when a public health professional was in the room. Nowadays, the questions we receive are expanding as public health practitioners are partnering on multi-sector initiatives.

In Seattle/King County, this evolution is occurring, in part, as a result of both protecting foundational public health services while aligning work with social issues that have the greatest impact on health. In fact, around the country, public health staff are now included at tables where they weren’t before—from transportation to early childhood development to affordable housing initiatives. In King County, you will find public health experts working with:

  • city transportation planners so light rail stations are walkable and bikable,
  • statewide Department of Early Learning leaders to address connections between the achievement gap and health disparities and
  • public housing authorities to measure the impact of housing re-development on health.

What Can the Health Department Bring to Your Work?

A public health approach is grounded in a focus on prevention, a foundation in science and data, a focus on community as a shared partner and an equity and social justice lens.

Public health has long been a field driven by evidence. More recently, there’s been a growing body of knowledge focused on the social determinants of health. Local health departments use a data-driven perspective that can help inform a variety of social and economic challenges. By bringing this lens to community development, housing, workforce development and other sectors, we can break down the silos that have separated our work in the past. And, we are seeing our partners in health services such as hospitals and health insurance companies become strong partners for community development.

So how do you tap into your local health department?

Seven Ways Your Health Department can Advance Your Work

In the last two years of working across sectors through the Living Cities Integration Initiative’s Communities of Opportunity, we’ve identified seven ways public health can partner with other sectors to add value:

  1. Data: One of the clearest reasons to work with a local health department is to access local, geographically based health data. This includes data on demographics, risk factors, and physical and mental health measures over time. Epidemiologists can share and analyze these data.
  2. Evaluation: Public health evaluators bring skills in analyzing the contributions different programs can make to improve residents’ health and well-being. When you bring evaluators to the table early in a project design, they can come up with simple ways to demonstrate the impact of community development work.
  3. Community Engagement: Some public health staff, often called “health educators,” have considerable experience, skills and social networks within communities. When these affected populations participate in the design of community development work, the outcomes are often more successful than cookie-cutter or externally-defined approaches.
  4. Racial Equity Lens: Many in public health have worked on the subtle and overt ways that racism affects health and what to do to change this. In fact, the American Public Health Association 2016 President, Dr. Camara Jones, has made addressing structural racism the priority of public health and her leadership this year.
  5. Evidence-Based Practice: While we are still building the evidence on the effects of social determinants of health, public health program staff and researchers have decades’ worth of research available on what has worked in the past. These resources include the Community Guide and toolkits on excellent websites: Community Health Improvement NavigatorCounty health rankingsBuild Healthy Places NetworkCommunity Tool Box and many others.
  6. Population-View: Public health leaders are trained to take a population view. As laid out in the Centers for Disease Control’s Community Health Improvement Navigator site, public health staff have experience considering the overall effects of systems on larger populations, which can lead to different conclusions than an individual level approach—more typical of the fields of medicine, social services and law.
  7. Navigation Role: At the end of the day, health department staff know that a city planner or city council is going to make the final decision about where to place a park or a new housing development, but health department staff can provide navigation guidance to inform that decision. Health impact assessments, from environmental health, are good examples of how a public health lens can provide navigation information for a major investment or policy decision.

So, yes, your health department meeting attendees may give a glance to that potato salad that’s been sitting out on the buffet table too long, but there are many other ways health department staff can contribute to community development work. It is through these collective efforts that meaningful improvement can take shape for the well-being of our communities.


Special thanks to Sharon Bogan, Program Manager with the Communications Team at Public Health – Seattle & King County, for her contributions to this piece.

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