You can't do population health alone: 4 steps to effective community partnerships

'It's about connecting the dots, rather than reinventing the wheel'

By Aly Seidel, Web Writer

Hospital leaders know that so much of what it means to be healthy is dependent on nonclinical factors—on the social determinants of health.

And Advisory Board research has found partnerships among health systems, public health groups, and community organizations are the most effective ways to do address health disparities, such as socioeconomic conditions, transportation, housing, and access to healthy food.

The problem

However, those partnerships are far too rare: Most organizations are traveling on separate, but parallel paths toward building healthier communities. As a result, valuable data, information, and resources are often siloed.

But it doesn't have to be this way, explains Advisory Board expert Rebecca Tyrrell. When key stakeholders collaborate, it can improve health outcomes and transform a community. "It's about connecting the dots, rather than reinventing the wheel," she tells the Daily Briefing.

Tyrrell previewed four crucial steps to build the business case for community partnership, which she details more in a new white paper, "Building the case for community partnership."

1. Engage hospital leadership

The key to sustainable community engagement is to bring hospital leaders into the process—otherwise, providers may see community partnership as separate from their organization's larger strategic aims.

"These partnerships should be elevated to system strategy, not one-off initiatives," Tyrrell said. "You need to treat community partnerships the same way you would treat any other strategic affiliation."

That means health organizations should create a plan to establish organizational commitment that identify the right project leaders, sets expectations, and defines metrics to analyze data and track success.

2. Prioritize your goals.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and you can't solve every long-embedded health disparity with one initiative. There's a wide range of social determinants of health, from socioeconomic status to food security, and attempting to address them all will spread your resources too thin.

Instead, Tyrrell suggests using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data to find what issues are most pressing in your community.

For instance, after identifying food insecurity as a major local need, Boston Medical Center opened an on-site food pantry, which serves about 7,000 people per month. The hospital trained clinicians to proactively identify patients who may benefit from the service. Those patients can access the pantry twice per month and receive about four days' worth of food each visit.

3. Leverage community organizations' strengths.

Once you've prioritized your list of opportunities, you need to assemble the right stakeholders who share your objectives.

The first step is to build trust within the community, Tyrrell says. Send hospital leaders to local meetings to learn from community partners and help integrate the care team into existing partnership structures. If you swoop in to "save the day," you risk stepping on toes and possibly burning bridges with potential allies.

And relying on these established partners can help support your stretched-thin clinical team, Tyrrell added. "It can be difficult to ask them to take on additional, nonmedical issues," she said. "Meanwhile, community organizations are already connected to the community and can step in to fill those critical service gaps."

4. Design integrated protocols and ensure timely follow-ups.

Once these partnerships are in place, the next step is to set up a structure: Determine how your organization and its partners will identify patient needs, recommend services, and follow-up. That structure should make it clear which organizations are responsible for which tasks and create accountability for follow-through.

Next steps

For a more comprehensive guide to developing and leveraging community partnerships, download Tyrrell's new white paper "Building the business case for community partnerships."

Download now


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