Pa. Rural Health Office, students help rural hospitals track health disparities

Jennifer Miller
December 02, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health (PORH), based at Penn State's University Park campus, and master of public health students at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey are working to help small, rural hospitals meet federal requirements for tracking and assessing local community health needs.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires nonprofit hospitals to conduct needs assessments, identify health issues, track health disparities, and implement efforts to address those disparities. For small rural hospitals with limited funding, this requirement – which must be completed every three years – can be a challenge.

PORH is helping a number of rural hospitals in Pennsylvania subscribe to a community health database developed by the Healthy Communities Institute (HCI) at the University of California, Berkeley. HCI’s Community Health Needs Assessment tracking system includes aggregate health data from roughly 500 federal, state, local and foundation sources. An HCI database helps hospital and health system leaders identify health priorities in their community and is the starting point for mapping out a plan to tackle problem areas.

The HCI database system provides various health-related data through a Web-based system that can be accessed by anyone online through a community dashboard. The system includes data from state and national sources and the figures are continually updated. In addition to assisting hospital administrators, the databases also will provide local, state, and federal agencies and the general public with access to valuable, up-to-date health data for these communities.

With funding assistance from PORH’s Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Program and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, administrators at rural hospitals in 11 counties in Pennsylvania will have access to HCI databases and subsequently will implement programs to improve local residents’ health. The collaborative effort includes hospitals in Blair, Centre, Clinton, Fulton, Lycoming, Indiana, Jefferson, Clearfield, Elk, Cameron and Forest counties. PORH will add additional counties as funds become available.

“The data will help hospital administrators identify their priorities for the community and act upon that data to improve those health disparities in those areas,” said PORH Deputy Director and Rural Health Systems Manager Lawrence Baronner. “They must show they are moving the needle on various measures they’ve identified.”

For example, in Fulton County hospital administrators found tobacco use to be a major issue for their community so as a beginning step to identify and tackle the problem, they offered low-dose CT scans to hospital employees and spouses as a proactive, screening measure for lung cancer, Baronner said.

Jason Hawkins, CEO for Fulton County Medical Center, said the partnership with HCI has been a blessing.

“For the first time we are to compare our community health scores with national data and at the same time find evidence-based practices to improve our population health,” Hawkins said. “With just a few clicks this data is at our fingertips for our team to explore creative solutions that we struggled finding in the past. Currently it is a critical component with the successful implementation of our community health needs assessments.”

Additionally, Hawkins said the HCI database has provided hospital grant writers with an “effortless access point to complete much of the data requirements that are required in the competitive application process.”

Providing additional data analysis are second-year master of public health (MPH) students enrolled in Jim McKenzie and Teresa Kern’s Public Health Sciences course. It is one of several projects students are undertaking.

“The projects are designed to provide students with a hands-on public health experience,” said McKenzie.

So far, students have reviewed the HCI databases and created spreadsheets with color-coded risk levels for different health disparities in each county. Susan Lane, Bobbie Johannes and Elisa Borst also are drilling down into the data to identify problem areas, such as Lyme disease. They are going a step further by identifying best practices compiled by the HCI system to improve these disparities and possible grant opportunities for the communities. Once complete, the results will be presented to PORH and the hospitals participating in the project.

“From this project, I learned about data management, team correspondence, project planning and the degree of health disparities across rural Pennsylvania,” Borst said. “This type of project management is a very valuable skill in the workforce, so I am very grateful for that experience. This project was also good practice with data management and grant research, both of which will be very helpful in the future.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 04, 2014