The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010) requires tax-exempt 501(c)(3) healthcare organizations like Gundersen St. Joseph's Hospital and Clinics to perform a Community Health Needs Assessment every three years and to adopt an implementation strategy to meet the identified community health needs.
Over the last three years, Gundersen St. Joseph's, along with partners within the Great Rivers United Way Compass Now 2018 committee, have been engaged in the process of identifying the needs of the communities within the Great Rivers United Way region.
The 150-page report details a full spectrum of data points covering everything from population demographics, suicide rates, food insecurity, affordability of healthcare, environmental concerns and more. The data itself is developed through a mix of community focus groups, random household surveys and county, state and national data analytics.
"It's really a snapshot of the needs of the community," says Dan Howard, director of marketing at Gundersen St. Joseph's, the organization's representative on the committee and author of Gundersen St. Joseph's community health needs assessment and implementation strategy.
The process sought feedback from community members of Hillsboro, Elroy and Wonewoc at a community focus group held in late 2017. Community focus groups were also held in other communities within the Great Rivers United Way service area including Vernon, Monroe, Trempealeau, La Crosse, Houston and Buffalo counties.
"We're included in the work performed by Great Rivers United Way because Vernon County is included in their service area," says Howard. "However, because of our unique geographical location and our two clinics in Elroy and Wonewoc, we sought input from our three communities in the form of a focus group and used their feedback as the core focus of our assessment. Then we looked at their issues in the broader context by analyzing the data found within the COMPASS NOW 2018 report."
The needs highlighted in the report include addiction and substance abuse, behavioral health, and access and cost of healthcare.
"We took these concerns and we looked at them in a broader context by looking at data points that either support or refute the concerns. What we found was that our community has many similarities with other communities within the region."
Addiction and substance abuse were highlighted as a high priority concern within the community due to the lack of AODA councilors in rural regions. Members of the focus group also expressed concern over the opioid epidemic.
"Gundersen Health System as a whole has already made steps to begin to address the opioid epidemic through a program to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions while increasing the use of other pain relief techniques," confirms Howard. "With providers like Dr. O'Rourke providing acupuncture and our massage therapist Becky Walker, we already have the ability to promote these alternative pain management techniques here in Hillsboro."
Gundersen St. Joseph's has also turned its attention to other addiction and substance abuse topics such as smoking and vaping. Although the report doesn't touch on vaping, it indicates that 17 percent of Vernon County residents self-reported that they smoke.
"We know a lot about the harmful effects of smoking and tobacco use, but the long term affects of vaping are still unknown," says Howard. "What we know is that the e-liquid which creates the vapor in vaping devices is not approved by the FDA for inhalation and nicotine is still harmful, particularly for adolescent brains that are still developing. The vaping epidemic has grown over the last few years, and we will continue to share information on the topic with the local schools as we get it."
Behavioral health was also highlighted as a high priority concern. Even though Gundersen St. Joseph's has placed huge focus on delivering mental health services, the focus group felt there was still work to be done in providing better access, faster services and emergency behavioral health.
"Gundersen St. Joseph's has made mental health a huge priority over the last few years by gaining certification from the state and partnering with the local schools to provide behavioral health services to the area students," says Howard. "We're going to continue to build on these successes over the coming years as we look at how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact community health and using trauma informed care in our processes."
The final area of concern raised in the report was access and affordability of healthcare. "These are absolute valid concerns," says Howard. "We, along with the entire Gundersen Health System, share these concerns. In fact, reducing the financial burden of healthcare is a core part of our system-wide strategic goal. It is vitally important to ensure healthcare is affordable because cost has become a barrier for many who need care." The report confirmed this with a staggering statistic that ‘25-30 percent of survey respondents said that there was a time in the last 12 months that they needed to see a doctor but did not because of the cost.'
The implementation plan outlines key strategies that Gundersen St. Joseph's will adopt to address these needs. "These strategies are the bigger strategies that we will look to implement over the next three-year cycle. During every cycle, there are new strategies added as opportunities arise and we expect that to be the case between now and 2021. One thing that will not change will be our focus on the issues; addiction, substance abuse, behavioral health, access and cost of healthcare."
The full report can be downloaded here.
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