From the Hip: Patty Hayes, Director, Public Health – Seattle & King County

Becoming a trauma-informed organization

Patty-Hayes-Portrait-High-ResolutionPatty Hayes, RN, MN is director of Public Health – Seattle & King County. She is responsible for the operations of the 9th largest public health department in the U.S. (ranked by population served); a staff of nearly 1500; six divisions; and delivery of public health services to the more than 2 million people who live in and visit King County.  Public Health touches King County communities in untold ways, including disease investigation and control, food safety through restaurant inspections, health and wellness services for low income moms, babies, and families; refugee health, emergency medical services, chronic disease and injury prevention, health services for inmates in King County correctional facilities, and much more. Public Health – Seattle & King County is nationally recognized as a leader in implementing innovative public health services, and has a deeply held commitment to delivering high quality and equitable services to all. One recent innovation that Patty is excited about is transforming Public Health into a trauma informed health department. We sat down with her to learn more.

Patty, what does it mean to be a trauma informed organization?

Understanding the widespread impact on health of intergenerational trauma, racism and oppression is core to effective public health work. The effect that direct and vicarious trauma has on individuals, communities, organizations and systems needs to be recognized as a huge impact to the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Knowing the potential paths for healing and recovery means that public health must work to be trauma informed and wellness focused in all of our lines of business. One key aspect of that is recognizing the signs of trauma in communities, understanding how our policies and systems perpetuate this trauma and then responding by integrating this knowledge into improving policies and practices. We also need to actively promote healing and to prevent re-traumatization by and among staff, communities and systems.

Why is bringing a trauma informed lens to your work important?

There is now an abundance of evidence showing that trauma and toxic stress are common, and can have significant impacts on people’s health. We want to reduce the negative impacts of trauma on the health of King County communities; to promote integration of core concepts of trauma-informed practice; and to create a shared culture and common language – beginning with our own staff. If we can wholly embody our trauma-informed-guiding-principles as a staff and organization, we will be better able to collaborate with communities to improve their collective health. Being trauma-informed is really about a long term, sustainable culture change.

How have you implemented this approach at Public Health?

Because of the discrete and disparate lines of business in the department, each of our divisions needs to explore how to bring a trauma informed approach to their work. We are implementing our Guiding Principles through three main strategies – training, mini-grants for staff projects, and Human Resources (HR) systems change. Training means developing a core curriculum and building staff capacity to offer training, as well integrating trauma-related information into our department’s existing employee orientation and other trainings. There were 25 staff-led projects that were funded by mini-grants in order to explore what our Guiding Principles mean in the context of their division of team’s unique lines of business. Finally, we are exploring recommendations regarding our HR policies and practices, including developing a more restorative, healing and prevention oriented approach to HR problem solving and investigations.

Where will this effort go? What’s next?

To have a trauma informed practice become part of the fabric of our public health practice will require continued effort. This is a journey in lock step with our Equity and Social Justice work. We are talking with our staff about the next leg of that journey. There is no roadmap for this work, and culture change takes time. Some of what’s being considered is how best to integrate this work with our Equity and Social Justice mission, how to  partner with other County departments and initiatives, and how best to sustain and evaluate our progress going forward.

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