It is shocking to know that many factors that determine health have little to do with medicine. According to public health experts, people with limited education, income, and access to health services suffer higher rates of chronic disease than the population as a whole. That is why local health officials, as well as their federal and state counterparts, are struggling to correct such health disparities, which often occur among socially disadvantaged populations. This is especially true for people living in the Southern Tier, particularly those who suffer from mental health issues and a lack of transportation to medical services. The challenge is how to overcome such obstacles so that everyone can enjoy optimal health.
Although there’s no simple solution, the Health Action Priorities Network (HAPN) in the Southern Tier has begun the process of overcoming barriers to good health for everyone. On April 5th
, HAPN assembled 200 health care providers, health officials, and health administrators from Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Tioga, and Tompkins Counties to identify regional barriers to health and pick priorities to address. HAPN Southern Tier will lead the collaborative effort to develop innovative ways to reduce health disparities by combining resources, knowledge, and experience throughout the region.
“We have resources spread across our five counties that could be aligned to address common problems,” explains Christina Galanis, president and CEO of HealthlinkNY, which launched HAPN Southern Tier as one of its population health initiatives. “No one has attempted to look at the health characteristics of an entire population on this scale, and collaborate across the region to find answers. But now we will.”
Funded by a New York State Department of Health Population Health Improvement Project grant, the HAPN Southern Tier initiative is unlike most state-funded health improvement projects. “Many grants target specific concerns, such as childhood obesity or heart disease,” explains Adam Hughes, MPH (pictured in photo), who manages HAPN as senior director of community initiatives at HealthlinkNY. “This grant is different. We surveyed health care stakeholders and held consumer focus groups, and identified what our region needs. Then we met on April 5th
to present survey results to our stakeholders. We choose two priority areas that no one else is addressing — mental health and transportation — because we believe we can collaborate and use existing resources in an innovative way to make a meaningful difference in those areas.”
Lack of transportation was the most frequently cited concern mentioned by 42.8% of respondents in the HAPN stakeholder study, which was led by HAPN Data Analytics Manager Yvonne Johnston, DrPH, MPH, MS, RN, FNP. The data identified the underlying factors and key barriers that make transportation difficult for many in the Southern Tier. “To seek medical care, residents living in rural areas do not have access to public transportation, and many do not have access to personal transportation either,” she points out.
“HAPN’s job is to work around the problem,” notes Mr. Hughes. “We can create innovative strategies so that people do not have to travel, or they don’t have to travel as far. We can look at technology, such as telemedicine, to shrink travel time. We can pool the resources of different stakeholders in the Southern Tier, so such technology can be afforded. There are several options to solve this problem, and we know everyone is aligned to work on this together.”
The burden of mental illness to society is enormous. As Mr. Hughes explains: “Mental illness can affect a person’s ability to go to school or earn a living, take care of family, or manage his or her own physical health. However, mental health often goes undiagnosed, and in the Southern Tier, we don’t have enough mental health providers.” The HAPN survey found that 10.6% of the regional population suffers from poor mental health, and survey respondents said there are not enough mental health providers, particularly psychiatrists, in the region. Mr. Hughes says another factor is that those suffering from mental illness often do not seek treatment on their own. “A possible solution might be to help primary care physicians recognize signs of mental illness in their patients and make it easier for them to refer patients to get needed help,” he says.
Mr. Hughes says that HAPN now gives the Southern Tier the ability to evaluate the region’s existing capacity of mental health services and providers, and examine how expertise and resources can be aligned to maximize the effectiveness of services throughout its five counties. “We have departments of mental health and mental health associations in each county, and we can get them talking to each other,” he explains. “We can leverage resources so that instead of operating in silos, we can rethink and reframe those resources, and affect change in a meaningful way.”
The learn more about HAPN Southern Tier, click here