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Local Leaders, Citizens Discuss Pressing Community Health Needs at Forum on Monday

By Jessica Isaacs

Health care professionals, educators, community leaders and concerned citizens convened at Watauga Medical Center on Monday night to learn about and discuss how to address some of the county’s most pressing health-related issues.

Health care professionals, citizens and local leaders discuss important health-related issues in the community at a public forum on Monday night. Photo by Jessica Isaacs.

Hosted by the Appalachian District Health Department and Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, the annual Watauga County Health Forum began with a light dinner and an opportunity for guests to network and mingle.

Chuck Mantooth, president of Watauga Medical Center and president/CEO of Appalachian Regional Medical Associates, opened the program with a message about new and existing initiatives at the hospital.

“We’re talking about meeting that patient in the middle. We’re focusing on chronic disease and now we’re trying to focus on how to keep folks healthy,” Mantooth said. “Our goal would really be to put ourselves out of business here at the hospital so folks would never have to use our services. That will never happen, obviously, and there will always be a need for the hospital, but I’m excited about the future.”

ADHD Health Director Beth Lovette gave an introduction to the public health department’s role in Watauga and surrounding counties, explaining that it’s responsible for three important aspects of health in the community:

  1. Health Care: Providing direct services
  2. Epidemiology: Studying, tracking and trending diseases in the population
  3. Prevention: Spreading awareness and promoting healthy options
Health care professionals, citizens and local leaders discuss important health-related issues in the community at a public forum on Monday night. Photo by Jessica Isaacs.

“If you look at the overall health of the population, about 10 percent of their health is impacted by health care and going to receive a health care service, whether it’s at the hospital or your doctor’s office or whatever,” Lovette said. “But, of that same population, 30 percent of their health is impacted by their behaviors. What we also know is that behavior isn’t just about willpower. So what we have to do … is to help people by making the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Lovette also noted that North Carolina is the only state to have an accredited public health department in each of its counties.

Addressing Community Health Needs

ADHD Allied Health Director Jennifer Greene shared highlights and some important statistics from the annual Community Health Needs Assessment Report for 2014-15.

She explained that, in evaluating and addressing at the community’s health needs, the health departments looks at:

  • Local data and health statistics
  • Community opinions — what do they think is important and how has that changed over time?
  • Community context — what do we do to address health problems that we face?

“This is really our process that we take. We look at our data, we analyze that, we set priorities,” Greene said. “We develop community health improvement plans. But that’s not just the health department, by the way, that’s all of us together addressing those key, important issues.”

To get your own electronic copy of the report, or to schedule a presentation on its findings, contact the health department.

Highlights from the Report

According to those who took the survey for this year’s needs report, Greene said, the following were identified in the community as the most prominent risky behaviors that negatively impact health:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Being overweight
  • Poor eating habits
  • Tobacco use
  • Lack of exercise
  • Dropping out of school
Local leaders, health care professionals and concerned citizens engage in conversation at the Watauga County Health Forum on Monday. Photo by Jessica Isaacs.

Greene explained that the following were the leading causes of death in the community, according to the report:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • All other unintentional injury
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Pneumonia and influenza
  • Suicide
  • Chronic liver disease/cirrhosis

She noted that 62 percent of all deaths in Watauga County last year were linked to preventable chronic disease.

On the report’s community opinion survey, Green said survey takers identified the following as the top risk factors affected health in Watauga County:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Physical inactivity
  • Tobacco use
  • Substance abuse

Greene also shared a short video published on DesignedToMove.org, which promotes the benefits of physical activity, which explained that children today make up the first generation that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Watch the video here:

Facilitating Healthy Change

Guest speakers representing a variety of nonprofits, health care agencies, education programs and government agencies took to the podium to share about ongoing efforts to make healthy changes in the community.

Watauga County Health Forum, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo by Jessica Isaacs.

Adrian Tait, executive director of the High Country Workforce Development Board, addressed health care as one of the area’s top five industries (along with manufacturing, professional services, hospitality and construction). He noted that there are a number of health care jobs available in the High Country, and that increased access to continuing education would allow local workers to grow their careers in the field.

Professors Kurt Michael and J.P. Jameson from the Department of Psychology at Appalachian State University were on hand to discuss their research and their role in mental health programs in schools and across the community.

On behalf of Watauga County Schools, Director of Student Services Paul Holden addressed the school district’s focus on collaborating with other local resources to promote healthier lifestyles and address needs like physical inactivity and food insecurity.

Northwest Regional Housing Authority Executive Director Ned Fowler spoke on the dangers of secondhand smoke and the positive results of the agency’s policy change two years ago, which banned indoor smoking from all of its multi-family housing facilities.

Dean Ledbetter, a transportation planner for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, told the audience about ongoing projects that are building sidewalks and installing pedestrian signals. Those projects, he said, will allow people to safely cross highways in low-income areas and therefore get more exercise by walking to and from their daily activities.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture Executive Director Carol Coulter shared her passion for farming and fresh foods with the audience, explaining how and why the agency is committed to combating food insecurity and helping people understand where their food comes from and why that’s important.

A Call to Action

Watauga County Health Forum, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo by Jessica Isaacs.

Watauga County Commissioner Perry Yates, also a member of the Appalachian District Board of Health, reminded everyone that community health is everyone’s business. He challenged folks in the room to stay passionate about pooling resources and helping one another achieve a healthier community.

Gary Childers, executive director of the High Country United Way, addressed some of the ways his agency is working to answer the needs of the community and encouraged audience members to give their input on positive changes that could be made.

Greene was joined by Gillian Baker, vice president of corporate communications for ARHS, in closing the program by inviting everyone to be a part of making Watauga County a healthier place to live, work and play.

“Don’t underestimate what a small action can be and how you can be part of really changing the health of your community,” Greene said.

Click here to learn about the local health department and contact them for copies of the annual needs report or more information about ongoing programs.