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Spring 2022
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Public Health in Practice: NCIPH Remains Essential Resource for Public Health Practitioners

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NCIPH is the bridge between academia and public health practice, working closely with local public health departments across North Carolina.

Gillings experts and students are engaging in practice that makes a difference locally, nationally and globally.

As a bridge between academia and public health practice, the North Carolina Institute for Public Health (NCIPH) works closely with state and local public health departments, health care organizations, and community partners on pressing public health needs. 

Formally established at Gillings in 1999, NCIPH is a critical resource for public health practitioners in North Carolina. In addition to offering in-person and online courses, training sessions and conferences on a variety of topics to public health practitioners, NCIPH collaborates with local health departments through the N.C. Local Health Department Accreditation Program. N.C. was one of the first states to implement an accreditation program to assure and enhance the quality of local public health. NCIPH staff helps local health departments meet the required accreditation standards, assess the most urgent health needs in their communities and develop strategies to meet those needs. 

“We work with community nonprofits and other partners, but state and local health departments are really our bread and butter,” says Amy Belflower Thomas, MHA, MSPH, director of community assessment and strategy at NCIPH and an adjunct professor in the Public Health Leadership Program. “We touch all 85 health departments regularly as part of the accreditation process, and, in the past few years, our emphasis has changed from quality improvement to strategic planning. We help local health partners strategize on how to meet their communities’ needs, and our mission is to help them increase their capacity to do that.”

"We help local health partners strategize on how to meet their communities’ needs, and our mission is to help them increase their capacity to do that."

— Amy Belflower Thomas, MHA, MSPH

As the COVID-19 pandemic led to overwhelming demands on public health professionals, it also changed the way NCIPH did its work and interacted with its partners. For example, field surveys are a critical part of community health assessments, which are a requirement for accreditation. Typically, these surveys rely on field workers going door-to-door to reach the most households and collect the most robust and inclusive data. But due to concerns about the spread of the virus, data collection methods shifted to more remote, technology-based approaches that are not as readily available to all residents. Some counties tried a hybrid approach, sending a postcard to see if a resident was willing to engage and then following up with a call or porch visit. Others used socially distanced or virtual focus groups to ask for residents’ opinions.

“We focus on providing technical assistance and meeting our partners where they are, and the counties focus on engaging their community members,” Belflower Thomas says. “But we know we can’t truly improve equity without hearing everyone’s voices.” 

That the pandemic brought more visibility to longstanding equity issues creates an opportunity to challenge the structural and systemic conditions that contributed to those disparities. “Public health has always known inequity, but COVID-19 was really able to bring that to light so everyone could see it,” Belflower Thomas says. “And because of that, our partners became more interested in rethinking how we do our work to better address those challenges.”

As part of the strategic planning effort on practice, Gillings leaders are discussing how to set the NCIPH on the right path forward to assure its continued relevance and effectiveness. The Institute’s interim director, Steve Cline, DDS, MPH, has served on the task force and conducted a more detailed assessment specific to NCIPH. 

“Building this roadmap allows us to put our best foot forward to meet the needs that the new public health environment calls for,” says Cline, who talked to public health leaders in N.C. and nationwide, as well as current and former NCIPH staff and customers, as part of his assessment. “We all believe in the mission of providing service to the state by connecting practice to teaching and research and by connecting the School to communities across N.C. There is a lot of good practice being done at the Institute and at Gillings as a whole, and we need to find ways to elevate practice and make that work more visible.” 

Helping School Staff Adapt to New Roles During Pandemic

As school leaders and staff across N.C. tried to adapt to rapidly changing roles and responsibilities and respond to a variety of needs that emerged during the pandemic, the state Department of Public Instruction turned to NCIPH for help.

“So many things were constantly changing during the pandemic, and it required our team to very nimble and responsive,” says Rachel Wilfert, MD, MPH, CPH, director of workforce training and education at NCIPH.

Critical areas where these training modules were most needed were understanding how to mitigate disease outbreaks, establishing best practices for virtual school nurse visits, development and leadership of school nursing teams, helping schools care for the emotional well-being of students and staff in the context of virtual learning, and working to raise awareness of critical inequities in oral health and supporting connections to care.