Spotlight: Tri-Town Health Department & Be Well Berkshires

We are pleased to offer the February 2015 installment of our Spotlight series to highlight MPHA partners and friends from across the state who are changing lives and communities to improve health and advance health equity. 

This month we interviewed Jim Wilusz, the Director of Public Health for the Tri-Town Health Department, covering the communities of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge, and overseer of Be Well Berkshires, a Mass in Motion initiative. “Our vision is whenever anyone turns off the MassPike and into the Berkshires, they are welcomed by signs stating ‘Welcome to the Berkshires, the healthiest community in the Nation.'” 

BWB logoMPHA: As the Director of Public Health for Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge, three municipalities covering nearly 80 square miles, what are your main challenges?

JW: The Tri-Town Health District was created in 1929 due to a bacterial outbreak in milk when the three towns decided to share services to combat this issue. Since then, the District has evolved into a comprehensive, multi-pronged public health program. The three towns, regardless of the similarities and differences between them, have a common goal: offer the best public health services because the community deserves them. One challenge is workforce development and recruitment of the next generation of local public health professionals. Berkshire County has a unique challenge because many towns are rural and many do not employ paid staff. This makes it difficult to hire local public health professionals. A second challenge is that the demographics are swiftly changing- our population is aging at a faster rate than expected and the younger generation is moving out of the area. We need to adapt our committees to meet the needs of the area. This can be achieved through collaboration and relationship- building with a focus on education, the built environment, and health policy. This will keep our key stakeholders informed and better prepare our community for this shift. Lastly, resources are needed to develop and sustain new programs. We have been fortunate to receive grant funding to develop and sustain a wide variety of policies and programs.  Our programs range from tobacco control, to creating the Be Well Berkshires Leadership consortium, to the online tobacco retailer training, and we parlay those resources with our existing relationships, locally and statewide, to advance and make the Berkshires a healthier place to visit and live.

MPHA: Seven communities in the Berkshires now have laws requiring all retail staff who sell tobacco be trained on youth access regulations. In 2007 you created a formal training and test that tobacco retailers must pass every three year. Since then, you launched a web-based version. How is that working?

JW: In fiscal year 2007, in response to the high number of failed tobacco compliance checks, the Tri-Town Health Department worked with collaborative partners including local boards of health, tobacco retail store owners, elected officials, and other various health department staff in the county to create the Tobacco Retailer Subcommittee. This subcommittee was tasked to examine and review current board of health regulations and their efficacy, determine the reason why illegal tobacco sales were increasing as compared to the previous years, and to explore options to address the issue of youth access. The subcommittee determined that there was not a formal training for store clerks and that a formal certification program was drastically needed. This program would put more responsibly on the clerk selling the tobacco products in order to reduce illegal tobacco sales to minors. Subsequently, we have reported a reduction of illegal sales to minors by 70%. Access to this crucial training was recently expanded in March 2014 to over 400 retailers who have purchased and completed the web-based training. To learn more about the Web-Based Tobacco Retailer Certificate Program you can view the annual report or access the training.

MPHA: Last summer you began a monthly show for public access TV and YouTube to share information about Be Well Berkshires, your Mass in Motion program. What prompted you to use this medium and how has the feedback been?

JW: Be Well Berkshires (BWB) launched in 2009 through former Governor Patrick’s administration to combat obesity by increasing access to healthier food choices, promoting and increasing access for physical activity, and advocating for environmental, systems, and policy changes. That work still continues. As the BWB leadership evolves to include communities in north Berkshire county, totaling eight (8) communities and representing 70% of the Berkshire population, we have worked diligently to identity opportunities to promote healthier lifestyles. Local community access programs are a great resource because they allow us to educate our community residents about what is going on in the county. It’s free and accessible for the public and permits delivery of a good, clear message in a sustainable way. Social media is a perfect opportunity for us to reach a younger population. Based on our experience, through many media channels, we have received tremendous amounts of feedback and we continue to focus on social media to get our messages across. We track analytics to assess and understand what content is popular and who we are reaching so that we can constantly refine our outreach efforts. You can see how we are spreading our messages by visiting our Facebook page, our website, or our YouTube channel.

MPHA: On a good-weather-no-traffic-day it takes 2.5 hours to drive from Stockbridge to Boston. What’s it like to work in public health and be so far from the capital city?

JW: Living out in the Berkshires has its benefits and challenges. It is important to witness and identify with all sectors of the Commonwealth and to the see the natural beauty of one of the oldest states. Commuting through the state allows that opportunity. Although travelling is somewhat challenging due to time and budget constraints, it is important to represent our area and ensure that the Berkshires are just as relevant and important as all other counties.

MPHA: What’s one thing about the Berkshires you’d like more people to know?

JW: Berkshire County is traditionally known as a tourist spot in the summer and fall, with popular attractions like Tanglewood, Berkshire and Williamstown Theatre Festivals, Third Thursdays, the Colonial, among others, but there are so many things to do throughout all four seasons. Berkshire County, with respect to health and wellness, is working around the clock with our local stakeholders and partners to improve health outcomes and be the healthiest county. Many organizations are working on comprehensive county-wide plans to enhance health and well-being and to ensure the continuation of positive health outcomes. Berkshire County as a whole, working with Berkshire Health Systems, local boards of health, and local planning and community coalitions, has been awarded the Prevention Wellness Trust Fund to improve our health rankings. With focus on four interventions, we plan to continue our successes and build a clinical/community infrastructure that will last for centuries. Concurrently we are working towards a Healthy Aging 2020 goal as well as and many other initiatives. Our vision is whenever anyone turns off the MassPike and into the Berkshires, they are welcomed by signs stating “Welcome to the Berkshires, the healthiest community in the Nation”