Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Be aware of services offered by Public Health Department

‘The first wealth is health,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In honor of National Public Health Week, observed April 5 to 11, the county Public Health Department will be launching a public awareness campaign to help inform residents about the full range of services provided by the Public Health Department and the many ways in which public health impacts our community’s well being.

During this campaign, the Public Health Department will try some new methods to reach the public and spread the message. Look for us at some of the farmers markets during this week and keep an eye out for our red stickers emblazoned with “This is Public Health” strategically placed around town as visual examples of public health in action.

Public health has long played a vital role in all of our lives. During the 20th century, the dramatic increase in average lifespan is widely credited to public health achievements, such as vaccination programs and control of infectious diseases, effective safety policies including motor vehicle and occupational safety, improved family planning, fluoridation of drinking water and anti-smoking measures.

Given these advances, in concert with our nation’s relative wealth, medical technology breakthroughs and highest per capita spending on health care, one could expect the United States to lead the world in key health measures. But despite all the money, attention and possibility, we continue to fall behind.

In a recent ranking of 19 industrialized countries, the United States ranked last in preventable deaths. One in three American children is overweight or obese and for the first time, American children may live shorter lives than their parents. And 20 percent of people in America have delayed or postponed medical care, often due to cost.

We in San Luis Obispo County, notwithstanding many positive statistics, also struggle with many of the same hurdles to improved health, such as lack of universal access to care, unhealthy behaviors, easily attained non-nutritious food and drink and ongoing transmission of communicable diseases.

The San Luis Obispo Public Health Department, comprised of the six units highlighted below, strives every day to combat these impediments to better community health.

Environmental Health Services works to prevent exposure to toxic substances, disease-causing agents and unsanitary conditions. Specific program areas include food sanitation, land development, hazardous material management, waste management, water quality and stormwater management. A reflection of some of the work done by Environmental Health Services is the number of annual inspections including nearly 1,500 for hazardous materials, 2,000 for restaurants and other food facilities, 250 for pool facilities and response to nearly 1,000 complaints from the public.

Family Health Services provides an array of services including communicable disease control, reproductive health, cancer screening, case management for high-risk pregnant women as well as low income, foster care or disabled children and a Suspected Abuse Response Team. More than 22,000 encounters with community members occurred last year for services such as family planning, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted disease and in-home visits. Also, 14,826 birth and death certificates were issued.

Health Promotion includes tob-acco control and childhood obesity prevention programs, oversight of HIV/AIDS prevention state grants and women, infants and children supplemental nutrition.

Last year, nearly 500 local residents attended tobacco education and cessation classes, more than 1,200 children and adults attended “ReThink Your Drink” (classes teaching them to consume fewer sweetened beverages) and 54,804 food vouchers were distributed to the women, infants and children supplemental nutrition participants, with a resultant $3.3 million dollars entering the local economy.

Health Care Services oversees county-funded health care delivery systems including the county medical services program, which provides short-term insurance coverage for qualified medically indigent adults and medical care at the Jail and Juvenile Services Center.

In the last fiscal year, more than 4,500 County Medical Services Program patients accessed health care and nearly 2,000 jail inmates and 1,000 juvenile wards received medical care at their respective facilities. Health Care Services also oversees county-contracted services with Community Health Centers and the Emergency Medical Services Agency.

The Public Health Laboratory provides testing services for communicable diseases, water quality and animal diseases including rabies. The county Public Health Laboratory is also certified as a member of the national Laboratory Response Network, allowing it to receive and process agents of bioterrorism.

The Public Health Emergency Preparedness program develops standard operating plans and procedures, conducts drills and other trainings to prepare agency staff for disasters and manages the response in an actual event. The Public Health Emergency Preparedness program successfully oversaw the 2009 H1N1 Influenza A pandemic. Highlights of that activity include more than 35,000 vaccinations administered by the Public Health Department, more than 8,000 phone calls answered, mobilization of the Medical Reserve Corps for the first time and numerous updates to the media, public and local health care providers.

These highlights of the Public Health Department in action provide examples of the range of services provided and the many ways in which public health impacts our community’s well being. We continue to raise awareness about public health by communicating and illustrating the many ways in which public health improves the conditions and behaviors that affect the health of each and every one of us.

Look for information about the campaign and our department at www.slopublichealth.org.

Penny Borenstein is the health officer for the San Luis Obispo Public Health Department.