In 2009, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners undertook a top-to-bottom makeover of its public health policies and services in the wake of a 2008 Health Equity report by the Georgia Department of Community Health. The report listed the counties with the best health outcomes for minorities and those in which minorities faced the “greatest health challenges.” Despite having spent more than $2 billion on public health services since 1975, Fulton found itself on the latter list.
Fast forward to 2015. The latest National County Health Rankings, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, shows Fulton is now in the top 15 percent of Georgia counties with the best health outcomes. The journey has not been easy, nor without setbacks, but actions to address health disparities and improve health outcomes have undoubtedly been successful.
The terms “health disparities” and “social determinants of health” are relatively new to the layperson’s lexicon. Social determinants are the social factors — gender, race, socio-economic status, educational level and where a person lives — that often negatively impact health outcomes. Health disparities refer to differences in the quality of health care and outcomes due to the aforementioned social factors.
Common Ground, the nationally recognized initiative enacted by Fulton leaders, addressed the “access to care” aspect of social determinants. It established a network of modern, family-friendly health centers to provide integrated care.
This “integrated care service delivery” approach has all public services — health (including primary care, dental and behavioral), job and career assistance, housing assistance, library, computer labs and the arts — in one location to address constituents’ needs. When clients come for one service, our clinicians assess and address other critical needs they might have.
When I joined the Fulton County Board in 2011, Common Ground had begun to bring about the changes we hoped it would.
One of the early highlights for me was presiding at the opening of the beautiful new Oak Hill Child, Adolescent and Family Center in southwest Atlanta. Its 22-acre campus is a treasure trove of services for young people from infancy to age 21, embracing the integrated care concept. There are, of course, medical services, but also gardening, nutrition and cooking classes, games and exercises, with the goal of tackling a major national and Georgia problem: childhood obesity.
By now, my constituents know I solidly support “health in all policies” when envisioning, planning and implementing programs throughout the county. Currently, I chair the Healthy Counties Initiative Advisory Board for the National Association of Counties.
Last October, I hosted an all-day Building Healthy Communities summit that brought together national, regional and local leaders to brainstorm. I wanted to hear how they would improve public health and ascertain what resources they could bring to the table. Since then, I have attended a number of neighborhood health screenings, neighborhood planning unit meetings, and seminars and summits. I want to make sure the people of Fulton County know about and understand the services available to them and how these programs and services help us all to live healthy, productive lives.
Joan Garner is the District 4 Fulton County Commissioner.