Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma Initiative
In the fall of 2020, health administration and policy Professor Gary Cox began exploring options for improving the pandemic response across Oklahoma. After months of discussions and planning, the Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma initiative was announced in November of 2021, with Cox taking the lead. The main focus of the initiative was to better understand how our state, as a whole, responded to COVID-19 and how that information could be used to improve the overall health of Oklahomans. This was a broad initiative that included stakeholders from the business, education, community engagement, and health care sectors.
“I was proud that the Hudson College of Public Health took an active role in bringing people together to discuss the pandemic,” says Cox. “Convening groups to talk about important health issues is one of the key strengths of public health.”
Cox initially assembled a group of Hudson College of Public Health faculty to provide professional insights and help guide the initiative. Health promotion sciences Professor Neil Hann was asked to help lead the initiative and conduct listening sessions in communities across the state.
“It’s been a good opportunity to look at our public health response to the pandemic,” says Hann. “I think we learned a lot of lessons about what went right and what went wrong.”
In addition to faculty guidance and support, Cox and his team also assembled a large steering committee of experts from various sectors across Oklahoma to discuss the pandemic response and propose solutions to strengthen future health emergency responses. Improving health requires buy-in from people in public health and health care, as well as those working in education and with the economy. They are all interrelated, and if even one is missing, quality of life declines in communities. “To be successful, we had to bring as many partners, collaborators, and supporters to the table as we could,” says Cox. “It’s all about the collective impact, and it takes a broad coalition to really make a difference.”
Recognizing that education, business, community engagement, and health care are pillars of healthy communities, Cox mobilized leaders from each sector to participate in workgroups that provided sector-specific feedback to the Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma team. Everyone involved in this initiative was excited and engaged. “We convened a great group of folks that worked well together and made everything come together,” says Cox.
A big part of the initiative was collecting feedback from local communities about their pandemic experience.
“It’s easy to sit within the walls of the college, but it’s critical for us to get out into the communities to understand their concerns, thoughts, and suggestions related to public health,” emphasizes Hann. The Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma team conducted six regional listening sessions across Oklahoma in Duncan, Lawton, McAlester, Miami, Muskogee, and with the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board. When asked what his favorite part of the initiative was, Hann immediately replied that it was working with community partners. “I enjoyed going out to the communities for the listening sessions,” he says. “Every time you work with community partners, you learn something new.”
Hann highlights the importance of local communities and partners in public health practice. “I think it’s fair to say that improving public health starts at the local level,” says Hann. Cox and Hann ensured that local public health partners were included in the initiative and had a way to voice their concerns and issues. “For me, the Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma initiative provided a good review of, and reminder about, the importance of community partners,” says Hann. The initiative was an opportunity to re-engage community partners so that the college can continue to work with them in the future to improve health on a statewide basis.
The Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma team developed a final report and recommendations based on feedback from a statewide survey, key informant interviews, listening sessions, workgroup meetings, and steering committee meetings. In addition to the final report, six policy recommendations were developed to address actions that state legislators can take to prepare Oklahoma to effectively respond to future health crises. One of the next key steps is encouraging Oklahoma legislators, political leaders, school boards, business leaders, health leaders, etc., to act on and implement the recommendations.
Center for Public Health Practice
The Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma initiative was housed in the newly created Center for Public Health Practice at the Hudson College of Public Health. Prior to his retirement in June of 2022, Cox was the director of the center. “The center is important because public health practice is important,” says Cox. After Cox’s retirement, Hann took over as the director. The hope is that the center will build upon the initiative by implementing several of the recommendations from the final report. One of the most significant recommendations is to rebuild the public health workforce. The pandemic highlighted the considerable need for public health workers and the severe shortage of those workers in our existing health care system.
The center will act as a hub for training and workforce development in Oklahoma. “There are a couple of different levels of public health training that are needed,” says Hann. “We have a number of individuals in the public health workforce who currently don’t have any official public health training.” One of the main goals of the center is to provide Public Health 101 training for those who are currently in the public health workforce but don’t have any formal public health training. Hann also hopes that the center will provide more advanced training to those who may want to continue their education with a master’s degree in public health or a certificate in population health, American Indian health, or social justice and inequity that the college currently provides.
Another recommendation that the center is focused on is improving and modernizing health-related data systems across Oklahoma. “I would love to see us be a data coordinator and help to facilitate discussions among those agencies and groups that have health data and would benefit from their data systems communicating with each other,” says Hann. Hann is specifically interested in making data more accessible to professionals, as well as the general public, who may want more information and data about current health trends. This could be provided via dashboards and similar types of technology that allow anyone to look at the data, understand what it’s saying, and make good health decisions based on the information.
The center will also work collaboratively with local public health partners to implement local solutions tailored to their specific community population. “One size doesn’t fit all, and that’s why I believe in community engagement so much,” says Hann. Every community is different and will improve its health by taking different approaches. “What might be effective in Guymon probably isn’t going to be effective in Poteau, Oklahoma,” says Hann. The center hopes to continue listening sessions with local health departments across the state. “Public health is all about relationships,” says Hann. “Once you have those community relationships built and strengthened, then you can see amazing things happen at the community level for public health improvement,” says Hann.
Cox and his team learned a lot about the pandemic through the Achieving a Healthy Oklahoma initiative. “We specifically heard about improving communication and access to resources to create a better response for future pandemics,” says Hann. Cox and Hann both acknowledge that health is too important for people to be divided on trivial matters. “My hope is that folks will get back together and the state will begin the healing process and begin to embrace a new Oklahoma standard of helping and being kind to each other,” says Cox.
Hann is optimistic about the future of the Center for Public Health Practice and its ability to engage public health partners, community leaders, and tribal nations across the state. “I want to make sure the center remains engaged with our partners and committed to their continued involvement,” says Hann. This includes utilizing partnerships to enhance training opportunities. “One thing I hope the center will be able to do is to help train the next generation of the public health workforce,” says Hann. “We will be actively engaged with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, local county health departments, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, and the Tulsa City-County Health Department.”
Even though Cox retired in June of 2022, he remains involved in the Hudson College of Public Health. “It was a pleasure working on this initiative and working with friends and colleagues across Oklahoma,” Cox says. “I hope it has laid the foundation for even better and bigger success going forward.”