Could Partnerships Make Your Community Healthcare Efforts More Effective?
“The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital,” said Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, first giving voice to that sentiment in a 2012 Huffington Post blog. With healthcare reform in full swing and a number of public health mandates on the agenda, organizations — ranging from small, rural hospitals to some of the largest, metropolitan health systems in the nation — are partnering with trusted community organizations to enhance their patient engagement strategies.
8 Steps Towards Better Community Health
In January, a H&HN cover story took a deeper look at the unique challenges that rural hospitals face in the changing healthcare landscape. The article notes that, “rural hospitals, with their limited resources, have been unable to fully embrace the risks and rewards of a system that links payments to the quality of the care they provide.” In addition, rural healthcare facilities often struggle to attract and retain physicians, and they must manage patient populations that are typically poorer and sicker than their urban counterparts. To overcome these challenges and address public health concerns, many of these critical access hospitals are collaborating — with community organizations and other rural hospitals.
The National Rural Health Resource Center offers eight steps rural hospitals can take to have a positive impact on community health, despite the obstacles.
- Determine the population health needs and establish a clear strategy for addressing it.
- Develop a marketing plan for community engagement.
- Get buy-in from the CFO, “framing the conversation in terms of charity care, bad debt and community benefit.”
- Recognize that population health programs require an investment — not necessarily in cash, but certainly in time.
- Engage the entire organization in your vision for population health — the board, the C-suite, IT and clinical staff all need to embrace the strategy to execute it.
- Understand how your community health initiatives fit in with larger healthcare reform goals.
- Bring community leaders and partners on board early and often.
- Think outside the box when it comes to partnerships — schools, libraries and senior centers can all play a role in making your community health program’s success.
National Rural Health Association vice president Brock Slabach points out that though rural hospitals do have do have obstacles to overcome, they also enjoy a critical advantage over their urban counterparts: agility. Slabach told H&HN, “I would look at rural communities as laboratories where these experiments in healthcare delivery can be interesting. You can implement programs faster and get results quicker, reflecting the way change happens in these communities. A smaller boat can be turned around much more quickly.”
Preparing for the Future
Those eight steps are not exclusive to rural hospitals, however. In fact, once the government establishes standards for measuring hospitals’ impact on population health, healthcare organizations of all sizes will need to have effective community engagement initiatives in place.
In its series on patient engagement, H&HN noted that David Nash, M.D., dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health in Philadelphia and a member on the committee of the National Quality Forum, believes most hospitals are unprepared for this next step in healthcare reform.
Organizations that have already tackled community engagement, however, have learned that building a program does not ensure engagement. Allina Health, for example, developed an initiative to address negative health trends in the community surrounding Abbot Northwestern Hospital, located in an urban, culturally-diverse neighborhood south of Minneapolis. After residents balked at being told what to do, Allina Health recognized that the community needed to have ‘skin in the game,’ engaging residents in phone and in-person interviews, as well as “listening circles” where they discussed the issues that impacted health.
Allina retooled the program to involve community members in coming up with solutions. To date, Allina’s Backyard Initiatives — ranging from community gardening to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables to LGBT support groups to reduce isolation — have successfully engaged 6,600 residents.
Allina’s experience emphasizes the importance of fine-tuning patient engagement strategies to meet the needs of individuals in order to positively impact population health. Even when targeting a group with a common condition — asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure — hospitals must consider the unique attitudes and lifestyles that motivate individuals.