GOSHEN — A nearly yearlong study will look at what Elkhart County residents need from their public health department and how it can serve them best.
Fellowship program enFocus Inc. will conduct a needs assessment of the Elkhart County Health Department under an agreement the County Commissioners considered Monday. Commissioners voted to have Health Officer Lydia Mertz sign a contract for the study, which also includes an evaluation of department programs and some social media and website help.
She told commissioners the project should be finished by July. The $40,000 cost will be covered by the health department budget, which is over $3.5 million for 2020.
The department offers a huge range of services, from vital records to food service inspections to disease screenings and immunizations. It also runs the Healthy Beginnings program, which includes prenatal care, dental services for kids and smoking cessation.
“We’re really busy: Immunization, in our STI clinic, communicable disease. Environmental’s busy. Birth and death certificates. We probably can’t change that too much because people live and die. We don’t have much control over that,” Mertz said after the meeting. “We’re busy now. We want to know that we’re busy doing the most that we could be doing.”
‘We need to find out’
The assessment will start by asking questions about the health needs in Elkhart County and whether people feel those are being met. It will also look at what the health department offers and whether it meets a need.
“Are there services that we’re giving that they really don’t need or they could get elsewhere more efficiently?” Mertz said. “Do they want us to be doing, like, blood pressure checks and well-person exams? Are they happy with what we’re doing now? Do they think that we can help them with other things, like should we be advocates for more public transportation? ... I’m not sure what all the public would want us to do, but we need to find out.”
She noted that the department has sent out questionnaires before, asking people things like what they want to see and how they would rate the service they received from the department. But this will be the first time the department has taken such an in-depth look.
It will draw on data already gathered by area hospitals, but hone in on what that information says about Elkhart County residents.
“They already have a lot of the data they need,” Mertz said. “The hospital does a community health needs assessment. But each hospital works with their communities, which goes across county lines. And of course we can’t go across county lines, so we need to change the assessments.”
The findings of the assessment and initial recommendations will be presented to the Board of Health on Dec. 5, she said.
The second part of the study will look at how well the health department’s programs are meeting those needs, and what changes might need to be made to make them more effective. The study might also suggest some new programs that could be tested out.
After a few months, enFocus will help the health department evaluate those programs and maybe suggest some final tweaks.
Mertz added that there won’t be a danger of widely used programs being dropped, but there may be some changes as they try to improve them.
“They may be changed some if we can do something more efficiently,” she said. “A lot of us have been involved in medicine, a lot of the managers have been there for quite a while, and enFocus gives us fresh ideas. I mean it’s like somebody’s looking from the outside-in, and that’s always a good thing to have.”
The study is something Mertz said they’ve wanted to do for a while. She said she started by looking at whether neighboring counties have done something similar.
Commissioner Suzie Weirick suggested enFocus, which has worked with Elkhart County on multiple projects in recent years. Mertz said they met to see how the organization could help.
Before the vote, Weirick remarked that enFocus will help the department with the transition into any program changes, rather than just tell them what to do.
“I’m excited to see what they come up with. If everything stays the same, then you get in a rut. That’s never good, to stagnate,” Mertz said. “I want to be sure that we’ll be effective and efficient and be the best we can be for Elkhart County citizens.”