Health Council IDs county's top health concerns

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 9, 2019 at 7:04 PM

Local health professionals identified mental health and substance abuse, community violence and adverse childhood experiences as the top problems facing Washington County and its residents.

In the first round of state-initiated County Health Assessments, the Washington County Health Council worked with the Tennessee Department of Health to name these three areas of concern by speaking with individuals working in health care, education, local government, business and public health, as well as other local residents.

In January, Tennessee became one of the first states in the nation to launch its County Health Assessment initiative, a “community-informed, county-level health assessment process” identifying key community health concerns.

Over the next three years, all 89 rural counties will also conduct their own assessments. The first phase of the spring assessment involved the input of local focus groups. Washington County is one of 16 counties in Tennessee participating in this year’s CHA.

Washington County Health Department Director Christen Minnick said “each county has different health priorities” and said the process involving multiple focus groups “has been extremely valuable to identify these priorities and to bring community partners together to find solutions that will improve the health of people in Washington County.”

“It's a great way for their voices to be heard,” Minnick said. “I think that any time we look at health concerns, there’s always an opportunity to make a positive impact.”

Minnick said it was no surprise that substance abuse and mental health were among top concerns for residents living in the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. She cited the high numbers of neonatal abstinence syndrome cases that occur when infants are born dependent on opioids. On average, close to one third of the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Niswonger Children’s Hospital are living with NAS.

While NAS rates fell in Washington County from 55.9% to 47.3% between 2016 and 2017, this remains a top concern for Washington County.

“We know that in Northeast Tennessee, we see a lot of issues with NAS, with opioid abuse and that type of thing. That’s at the forefront of a lot of concerns in communities across our area,” she said.

When it comes to examining adverse childhood experiences in Washington County, Minnick said health officials are looking into new ways to direct children to programs that will counteract the psychological effects of childhood trauma and encourage people to “make healthier choices” later into adulthood.

Both concerns, according to Minnick, are closely related to the third health priority — community violence, which she said encompasses child abuse, neglect, bullying, domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.

“It wasn’t just one particular age in our communities; it was throughout the life cycle,” Minnick said of examining concerns over community violence.

For more information on Washington County’s CHA and other assessments, visit www.tn.gov/vitalsigns.

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