Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health

Tackling Health on all Fronts in Tennessee

A Conversation with Leslie Meehan,
Director of Primary Prevention at the Tennessee Department of Health

Leslie Meehan

The State of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Health are often praised for their creative and exemplary programs related to physical activity and public health.  The NPAPA recently spoke with Leslie Meehan, the Director of Primary Prevention at the Tennessee Department of Health, to learn more about the department’s current initiatives and understand how other states might learn from Tennessee’s experiences.  Prior to her current role in the health department, she was a senior planner with the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).  Leslie shared three unique programs that utilize: cross-sector collaborations, employee engagement, and creative new roles.

Cross-Sector Collaboration Supports Health in All Policies Initiatives

“The group managing the health in all policies initiative in Tennessee, of which we are a part, is called the Tennessee Livability Collaborative.  The group formed about one year ago, and is examining ways to work more efficiently and effectively within state government to ensure an improved quality of life for Tennesseans.   We define livability as the intersection of all of our missions; the intersection of transportation, economic development, health, education, arts, recreation, housing, and food.

The group spent the first few months defining its structure and tasks. We are very proud because in many other states this work has been guided by an executive order from a governor or a law by a legislature, but our group developed completely organically. We see the value in partnering together and use that shared vision to define our scope of work.  We meet every other month with each state agency taking a turn as host.  The host office helps to facilitate the meeting, provides lunch, and shares an overview of what their agency does that is the most pertinent to livability. Having a meal together has helped us to network, build rapport, and get to know one another.  It allows us to see different ways that we can collaborate, either because we have a similar program, or we have staff that have a similar scope of work. We’ve been partnering together on funding, pooling resources, and writing grants.

One of our major projects right now focuses on three economically at risk communities across the state. These communities are also at risk for major health problems and a variety of other things. We are really excited to try this pilot program in which ten to twelve state agencies will simultaneously focus on specific communities. We are curious to understand if we will be able to move the needle more quickly in these counties with a concentrated effort, rather than having each agency work individually on its own priorities across the state.”

Using Existing Workforce to Encourage Community Development

“One of the initiatives to come out of the Livability Collaborative is the cross training of front line staff within the state government offices.  This cross training offers our front-line staff, the heart and soul of state government, the opportunity to attend a newly developed leadership-like academy, network with others, and feel applauded for their hard work and the value they bring to the lives of others who live in Tennessee. Our goal is that if a customer comes into our health department, for example, we can also inform them of housing, educational opportunities and transit options if those are areas of need.  This will do a variety of things; it will help state employees feel like part of a larger mission and vision, and create a more efficient government.

We are also tapping into our existing workforce with our Primary Prevention Initiative.  The Primary Prevention Initiative, started four years ago by our commissioner, provides time to more than 3,000 Department of Health Employees to participate in a primary prevention initiative of their choosing.   It could be working in a school garden, writing a grant for a playground, or sitting on a committee for a greenway initiative. Employees get to act on ideas that they have, or partner with existing community organizations.  Using our current workforce to encourage prevention projects is an innovative way of using an existing resource to move upstream, yet still provide exceptional clinical care.   It’s really given the employees the chance to plug into their work in a different way and to have the opportunity to do something different.”

Built Environment Liaisons Support Healthy Behavior in Rural Communities

“We have really focused a lot on physical activity in Tennessee, and we know that one of the ways to get people to be more active is through community design.  To encourage healthy environmental impacts we hired seven staff as Healthy Development Coordinators.  These individuals are health department staff located in our rural regional health departments throughout the state.  They act as built environment liaisons adding capacity to the local community, supporting what transportation planners, local parks and rec departments, and chambers of commerce are doing.  They are writing grants, convening meetings, and helping with ongoing efforts.  They work on efforts ranging from farm to school, community gardens, greenways, parks, etc. We are really excited about these positions. Now, as a department of health we aren’t just talking the talk, but we are providing staff and money to empower our health departments to walk the walk by coming to the table with assets.”


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