Tuesday, February 20, 2018

the South Dakota Way: Understanding How One State is Fighting the Flu

    I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Tim Heath, Program Manager for Immunizations with the South Dakota Department of Health. South Dakota may not necessarily be top of mind when it comes to fighting the flu: but it ought to. According to the numbers I pulled from the CDC’s FluView program, South Dakota is amongst the Top 5 states in terms of pediatric vaccination rates over the past five years of available data(65.72%).

    Interestingly enough, South Dakota stands alone geographically amongst leading states. In fact, neighboring states Montana and Wyoming have some of the lowest rates in the country. That disparity piqued my interest -- and, thankfully, Tim helped shed some light on what makes his state different.

    First and foremost, South Dakota has long made fighting flu a priority. While the state no longer has the universal vaccination program for kids it used to, the state continues to advocate strongly through concerted media outreach to keep vaccination top of mind. This speaks volumes: patient education starts before people even become patients.

    One way South Dakota succeeds despite its size and rural nature is through a strongly centralized state department of health. Nearly all the state’s 66 counties maintain local health offices operating under the same flu prevention strategy in tandem with clinics, Indian Health Service facilities, community health centers and hospital centers.

    In short, the Department of Health acts on well-established partnerships at every state of the patient care chain.

    While vaccination rate alone can never be a proxy alone for future influenza hospitalization rates(due to vaccine efficacy, the nature of that year’s strain(s) and a host of other issues), Tim firmly believes that the best first step many can take to stop the flu is by getting the shot.

    Despite South Dakota’s strong successes in combating the virus, Tim is reluctant to think it can serve necessarily as a model. The state is blessed with tight-knit, centralized Department of Health, proactive partners and strong relationships.

    With that said, I certainly believe that other states could look at ways their own systems could improve by trying to achieve similar characteristics. While some states, say New York or Illinois, face a different reality on the ground, they can still work hard to make the most of their healthcare partners and build relationships that deliver long-term results.

    In a perfect world, Tim would love to have the budget and resources to not just return to a universal vaccine for kids -- but for all South Dakota’s citizens. In lieu of perfection, Tim is focused on leveraging the skills of the people around him to do the most for the people of his state.

    I want to thank Tim Heath for taking a little bit of time in a very busy flu season to give his perspective on the ways states can combat the flu. Though every state faces its own challenges, there is much each state can learn from the others about their experiences -- and their successes -- when it comes to keeping people healthy. Until we have a perfect vaccine, that might be the best we can do.

Mental Health's Moment