Public health is a dynamic field that must constantly evolve in order to address emerging challenges. Jefferson County, under the leadership of Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson for the past 12 years, is no exception. In a recent conversation with ASF Alabama’s Executive Director Kristin Boggs, Dr. Wilson discussed the county’s new strategic plan, the importance of relying on partners, Jefferson County’s strong public health managers, and the unique approach that Jefferson County has taken and will continue to take to tackle health disparities. Dr. Wilson spoke openly about how the Jefferson County Health Department is planning for the future, its impact during his time and his thoughts on moving into the next phase of his career.
A New Approach to Strategic Planning
Jefferson County’s latest strategic plan marks a departure from those in the past. Dr. Wilson says the new plan is designed to equip the health department to address a wide range of challenges in both the current and future. “This has been a different approach and we’re calling it an adaptive plan which is basically trying to prepare and lay the framework for our health department to address whatever challenges come,” says Wilson.
He highlighted several key themes within the plan. One of the plan’s boldest affirmations is the centrality of health equity in all department activities. Dr. Wilson stressed that health equity is “the underpinning of everything that we do.” This emphasis on equity is a crucial step in addressing disparities within the community. The new plan also openly acknowledges racism as an issue that public health must confront signaling a commitment to addressing systemic issues that impact health outcomes. Jefferson County’s plan also aligns with a national trend that views health departments as community health strategists. This approach emphasizes partnerships and collaborations with other community stakeholders to achieve public health goals. “There’s a lot stronger language about us partnering with others in the community-doing more of that, not less,” continued Wilson. “We had really great engagement from our staff. Some of the most robust and energetic engagement came from the people that run or supervise individual programs. [Their input] really affirmed this idea of us partnering more, realizing that we can’t do everything as one health department. We have to work with others as much as the community will allow us.“
A Case in Point: Violence Intervention and Prevention
Part of the reasoning for the plan is practical. “It’s a recognition that sometimes it is easier and more effective to find a partner than to try to do it yourself. As a governmental agency, we’re a governmental bureaucracy with a lot less flexibility,” says Wilson. The Violence Intervention and Prevention Program is an example of how this can work. Rather than attempting to run the program entirely within the health department, the county found community partners and provided them with the necessary resources. This program is a partnership with multiple community groups joining together to tackle a challenging problem for the citizens of Jefferson county-how to address the root causes and offer support to victims of violence. This program enabled the Offender Alumni Association to hire and train individuals from the affected community who could better understand and address the issue of violence at a grassroots level.
The program serves as an example of the department’s willingness to embrace unconventional strategies in addressing complex public health challenges. Dr. Wilson admitted that while it’s challenging to predict the outcome of such initiatives, it’s essential to take these calculated risks in the pursuit of community well-being.
Dr. Wilson also shed light on the enthusiastic participation of health department managers in the strategic planning process. He attributed this engagement to both the diverse personalities within the management team and the varying perspectives that different roles bring to the table. According to Dr. Wilson, managers at the top often have a broader view, while those in the trenches have a specific passion for their unique areas of work. This diversity of viewpoints contributed to the richness of the strategic plan. Wilson is quick to praise his colleagues. “I have boasted that we have a deep bench, we have some very talented doctors who are good administratively and they care a lot about the community. We’ve been very fortunate to have a good team. We’ve managed to get some good people at the executive team level that I don’t have to manage. They run the Health department. I don’t know how much credit I can take for that.”
The planning process also involved a visionary element, where participants were encouraged to imagine their ideal public health landscape in the next 10-15 years. Dr. Wilson found this exercise to be not only productive but also enjoyable, allowing for a more holistic and forward-thinking approach to strategic planning.
In contrast to previous planning processes that relied exclusively on local facilitators, this time, the county added a national perspective. Dr. Wilson explained that this decision was made to gain insights from around the country, learn from best practices, and access valuable tools and references. Wilson notes, “We have a whole treasure trove of that information now that are footnotes to our plan. If you want to explore something further, here’s a national recommendation, or here’s what these other health departments have done. It’s there to guide us going forward.”
The department is in good shape to face the future as Dr. Wilson plans to depart and Dr. David Hicks takes over. “Dr. Hicks is an embodiment of energy and enthusiasm. He’s very unselfish and he’s been very loyal to me and supportive of me, which I’m extremely grateful for. I also lack certain skills, especially some of the administrative skills, just nuts and bolts. He is stronger in that area than I am,” says Wilson.
To read more about the Jefferson County Health Department, and to stay up to date with their community activities and how they are serving the citizens of Jefferson County, visit their website at: https://jcdh.org.