Committee to explore, assess health needs in community

Why do Benton and Franklin counties have higher obesity rates than the state average?

And why are rates of the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia on the rise?

Local health officials hope to find answers to these questions and more as they embark on an 18-month process to evaluate and assess the two counties' health needs.

A committee made up of representatives from the local health care and business communities, as well as higher education institutions and public agencies, met for the first time Monday to start figuring out what questions to ask, and who should be involved in asking them.

Carol Moser, executive director of the Benton Franklin Health Alliance, and Bob Smart, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for ESD 123, led the meeting and explained to about 20 participants what a community health needs assessment is, and why it takes a network of people to make a healthy community.

The assessment, in part, helps fill an IRS requirement for area nonprofit hospitals, but it also is a way to identify problems and possible solutions, Moser said.

"We might find out if we catch a problem now, we can manage it -- do some intervention so it doesn't become bigger in the end," she said. "You know the old saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

One immediate issue identified by participants is the fragmentation of services in the two counties. The local health and social service network has multiple access points, duplication of services and can be confusing to people trying to navigate their way through, participants said.

Moser said the assessment can help local agencies understand how to better work together to meet the community's health needs and help residents toward better health.

"We hope to reduce chronic disease and infection and become a healthier community," she said.

The first step is to gather data through telephone surveys and other interviews. The group also will work with data from focus groups as well as statistics from multiple sources.

Once data is collected, participants will dive deeper into the issues identified and work toward a set of goals and strategies.

Ultimately, the group will produce a report about the state of health in the two counties.