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Planning for better health in Georgia requires collaborative model

According to the United Health Foundation’s 2007 survey, created in partnership with the American Public Health Association, Georgia ranks 40 out of 50 states in the health of its citizens. That ranking that has remained relatively constant for two decades.

What are Georgians doing about that? Not enough. At the local, regional, and state levels, we have a plan for building roads, a plan for improving education, a plan for regulating business, a plan for ensuring employment, but there is no plan for systematically improving the health of Georgia’s citizens.

‘Letting good health happen’ just doesn’t work,” says Sandra Handwerk, coordinator of the Albany, Ga.-based Southwest Georgia Community-based Health Initiative (SWGCHI), a program of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. ‘Georgia needs to plan for good health in the same way we plan for infrastructure. Citizens need to work together to gain access to better health.”

Handwerk leads an effort she believes is an incredible opportunity, not only for southwest Georgia, but for the entire state. As coordinator of the Southwest Georgia Community-based Health Initiative, she is working with the local citizens, with nonprofit organizations, with local public health officials, and with faculty from the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University to develop a plan”shaped and framed by citizens”to systematically improve the health of the region.

‘The real health experts are the people who live here,” says Handwerk. ‘The first step in our process is to gather information from vital statistics, surveys, anything that’s been done. We’ll look at the strengths of the health system, where we can work to improve it, and what processes we can put in place to make our health systems better. Then we’ll take what we find out to the people of southwest Georgia.”

That’s just the beginning. The SWGCHI is a two-year process that begins with gathering information. Public health officials and faculty researchers from the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health will meet with focus groups, conduct surveys, and examine data to determine the major healthcare issues, then develop an action plan by the end of year one.

‘In the second year we will work to implement our action plan and find out if it is effective,” said Handwerk. ‘This important part of the process is driven by the community. With the potential to see major improvement in the health of the community, the people of Albany have real motivation to move forward.”

This initiative brings together a unique combination of people,” says Handwerk. ‘Having experts from the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health involved is like having a major consulting company at your disposal. In southwest Georgia you cannot buy this kind of expertise. It doesn’t exist in any one place.”

At the completion of the second year, the SWGCHI expects to have a model for health planning that can be applied to improve the health status of any community in Georgia. The model will bring together nonprofit organizations, public health officials, medical practitioners, citizens, and public health educators to plan and implement the model.

‘The work we are doing now has the potential to improve the health of all Georgians,” says Handwerk. ‘This may be the effort that takes our health ranking from number 40 to number one.”

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