What Our Public Health Partners Shared About Their Communities

Montana’s 58 local and tribal public health departments play a vital role in the health of communities around the state. These small agencies face many challenges, and administering complex, critically-important programs on a shoestring budget compounded by workforce shortages can be an uphill battle.

In view of these challenges, we were excited but not surprised by the interest and turnout we had at the regional roundtable meetings we held last fall in Helena, Billings, and Glendive. These roundtable discussions were part of the study we are doing as part of our ongoing work to strengthen Montana’s public health system.

Our consultant team kicked off these meetings with a basic introduction that covered the state of Montana’s health and the public health system; they also introduced public health institutes and the work they do in more than 35 states to build a stronger public health system.

After that, we turned it over to all of you! We facilitated conversations with participants to learn about health priorities in your communities, your reflections about the public health system and how it could be strengthened, and your thoughts about whether a public health institute is needed in Montana, and the roles that it could serve.

Participants identified many pressing needs, including mental illness and substance use disorders, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma, funding and capacity issues in rural health departments, health determinants such as housing and employment, and public policy challenges. Many of these same issues have been identified in local health departments’ community health needs assessments and health improvement plans in communities across Montana.

Participants noted that effective solutions to public health challenges will require multi-sector collaboration involving local partners from businesses, schools, and other organizations. Participants expressed interest in having help strengthening these collaborations and thought this could be one potential role for a public health institute in our state.

Other needs identified that could be filled by a public health institute included:

  • Increase funding for public health efforts through help with grant writing and grant administration.
  • Assistance with core administrative needs for local public health agencies with limited capacity.
  • Policy analysis, engagement, and organizing to support health-informed public policy.
  • Workforce development.
  • Increasing the focus on and resources available to address rural and frontier community health needs and health disparities.

You can learn more about what we learned at the meetings in this summary document.

We have now started on the second phase of this project: our consultant team has been interviewing key informants to dig deeper into the issues surfaced at the regional roundtable meetings. Our work in 2019 will include identification of potential rural and frontier public health models in other states that may hold lessons for Montana and site visits to two of them, as well as a thorough examination of the financial feasibility of creating a sustainable public health institute capacity for Montana. To stay up to date on this work as it progresses, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.