In what is one of the new state medical officer's first public health awareness projects, state health officials are rolling out a monthly series of messages aimed at boosting awareness of health issues as they relate to Montanans.
Called Health in the 406, the program will each month focus on a different health topic broken down into bite-sized bits of information that are easy to read and remember.
"What we're trying to do is bring up items to highlight areas where we are being successful in public health, and some areas that need improvement as well," said Dr. Gregory Holzman, State Medical Officer with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
Through a new website, voluntary email signups and a media push, DPHHS hopes the effort will open up more Montanans to information on public health topics they might have known about or been interested in before.
That includes things people normally think of as public health topics — such as vaccinations or disease control — but officials also want to focus on other aspects, including chronic pain, mental health and birth defects, while highlighting programs or efforts in communities around the state.
"We want people to see public health differently," said Linda Krantz, DPHHS chronic disease prevention program manager. "Public health has expanded and grown so much. It touches everybody and people don't think of things like falls as public health issues."
The first topic covers falls and fall safety in Montana. Included are statistics about falls in Montana — they result in 3,400 annual hospital stays and 19,800 emergency room visits while costing about $135 million — along with demographics saying that Montanans over 45 with arthritis have twice the risk of falling as those who don't, as well as resources and programs, like the statewide Stepping On classes, designed to help prevent falls.
"It's a great way to educate the public and other health care providers around the state with some data," said Jeremy Brokay, coordinator of the DPHHS injury prevention program. " ... We just want people to know that they're common, they're predictable and they're preventable."
By design, the post is broken down into three quick bolts of information covering numbers, demographics and resources so that the entire thing can be read in just a few seconds.
"We want to be very, very simplistic — like the three bullet points — that people can read in an email before they even have a chance to delete it," Holzman said. "They might learn something new or reconfirm something they already knew."
Officials also want the public to be involved and have set up an email account at firstname.lastname@example.org for people to contact with suggestions or comments.
Many of the program's components are borrowed from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effort called Did You Know, only localized for the Montana public. Holzman said that the number of people who signed up for that program was "pretty impressive" and hopes to replicate those results in Montana.
Holzman served as head of Michigan State University's Healthy Campus Initiative and was an associate chair of preventive medicine there before coming to Montana in the summer of 2015. He replaced Dr. Steven Helgerson, who retired.
Among his other previous positions are stints as Michigan's chief medical executive and the CDC's deputy director for the Office of State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support. He also spent time in Montana in 1998 as a staff physician at the Blackfeet Community Hospital in Browning.
He said that community health-building programs like Health in the 406 and collaborative efforts with communities, health care providers and organizations around the state are among his top priorities.
"I believe public health is one of the biggest areas where we can make a difference in people's lives," he said.
Among the medical officer's duties are leading statewide public health programs, keeping an eye on public health issues, working with the CDC and working with programs and other organizations around Montana on disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.