One of the fastest growing and most diverse counties in Colorado has created a health department with a division of health equity and strategic initiatives.
ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — Sitting near the podium, just hours before the Adams County Health Department’s grand opening, Monica Buhlig reflected on her background from philanthropy to public health.
“Everywhere, I’m learning more and more about the impacts on people’s health,” she said.
Buhlig will lead the newly created department’s Health Equity and Strategic Planning Division as director.
That’s the result of the former three-county health department that disbanded late last year, with Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties all forming their own divisions.
Buhlig, whose team has 26 employees, said a community health assessment of Adams County last year helped guide how her team will approach the first phase of planning.
The assessment found that the top concerns included food insecurity, housing instability, and mental and behavioral health.
But beyond that, she believes the pandemic has exacerbated the disconnect between public health and the citizens they serve.
“Public health has done a fantastic job of reaching people through evidence-based practice. But as the pandemic intensified, we lost touch and relied on community organizations to reach people. The pandemic has reminded everyone in public health that this is what it is The way it’s done,” she said.
Learn about a diverse community
Adams County was one of Denver’s first counties of color with a majority population, according to state demographers. It also has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the state and has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the state.
At the height of the pandemic, the Adams County-based organization worked to provide a COVID-19 vaccine through clinics and distribute tests.
The Hispanic population of metro Denver shows significantly fewer people vaccinated against COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites, and some advocates say lack of access to the vaccine is a factor.
Because of this, Buhlig felt it was important to enlist the help of prominent community leaders throughout the county to better understand how the people they serve want help or general information.
“We need to think about how we get information to the people who need it, how do we listen to people who are traditionally and now not usually there?” Billig explained. “In terms of what we’re listening to in terms of the plans we’ve put in place for our community health implementation plan? What do we need to change as a system to serve our communities? What do we need to change internally? “Do we do better ourselves?” Is that knocking? Yes. Sometimes it can be us. Sometimes it can be one of the trusted organizations because there are community leaders who know the community best. “
In addition to the slew of initiatives her team is working to launch, Buhlig hopes to finalize the formation of a community advisory board made up of the county’s community leaders.
Over the next six months, she said, specifically, community connections will be made and a so-called community health implementation plan will be developed.
“We’ve got to learn from all these community members, find credible sources, learn from them, and then we’re going to have to design accordingly,” she said.
> Watch extended interview: Buhlig discusses health sector equity and team vision
Different domains mean different solutions
Adams County stretches from Westminster to the Eastern Plains. Its population is about 520,000 after adding 78,000 residents over the past decade, according to Colorado demographers.
Buhlig acknowledged that the sheer size of the county means her team will have to work on tailoring different solutions for different communities like Thornton, Brighton, Commerce City and Westminster, just to name a few.
“…we have a rural community that also has different disparities in terms of access. The reasons for the access challenges are very different,” Buhlig said. “…food security, the solutions are going to be very different in rural Adams County compared to Thornton, and we need to recognize that. So we’re going to take the same overall approach and tailor it to each community custom made.”
Arapahoe and Douglas counties also created their own health departments and appear to be taking their own approach.
A spokesperson for Arapahoe County Public Health told 9NEWS they had a health equity community engagement specialist.
The assistant director of community health for the Douglas County Health Department explained that their services are provided through a “health equity lens.”
“While we do not have a health equity team, our health sector services are delivered through a health equity lens, based on the specific needs of our communities and the social determinants of health, such as finances, housing, transport and food insecurity, which may erect barriers to access to health care,” Larsen said in a statement.
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