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5 Steps for Building Community Health Partnerships for Health Equity

Community health partnerships hinge on good relationships between hospitals and social services and shared goals.

Healthcare organizations working to build out community health partnerships to boost health equity and address social determinants of health need to ensure they are on the same page as those with whom they collaborate, according to new literature from the American Hospital Association (AHA).

That recommendation, and more, come as part of AHA’s Health Equity Resource Series. This fourth and final series installment centers on building community health partnerships, which AHA said will be central to achieving health equity.

“The goal of advancing health and health equity within communities is more than any one organization, institution or community can accomplish alone,” AHA wrote in the report.

“Multiple stakeholders and influencers need to work together, both within organizations and across sectors. Hospitals are trusted organizations and economic anchors in their communities; this puts them in the position to be influential partners who can truly advance health equity for the patients they serve.”

Most healthcare organizations looking into social determinants of health and health equity work start foremost with the community health needs assessment, AHA said. This assessment, which derives straight from community input, can help organizations understand the current state of community health and the areas for opportunity and improvement.

From there, organizations can determine what interventions will help address health and social needs. But as mentioned above, doing so cannot and should not be a solo process. Hospitals, health systems, and clinics will need to partner with community-based organizations to successfully deploy these interventions.

Building out a thriving community health partnership that indeed does address community health needs will hinge on a good relationship between the healthcare and community organizations. Hospitals and health systems need to ensure they are on the same page as their community health partners, respect the resources all stakeholders bring, and bring those priorities through every step of the community intervention.

Carving out organizational goals

Before beginning a community intervention, hospitals and their community partners need to understand what each stakeholder brings to the table.

What’s more, they need to ensure they are all on the same page in terms of defining goals, selecting a focus population, and measuring final outcomes.

“For partnerships to succeed over the long term, staff need to see collaboration as a strategic priority,” AHA wrote in the report. “One important way to signal this is by starting these conversations with executive and board-level leadership. This ensures that the accountability begins at the top and cascades throughout the organization – creating the foundation for a shared accountability.”

Streamlining hospital and community needs, priorities

It’s important to take a look at what the community actually wants or needs before forging ahead with a social determinants strategy, the report authors said. This should be a multi-stakeholder pursuit.

“Hospitals and health systems should not simply assume what the needs of a community are, but rather set out in a collaborative fashion to co-design and develop solutions,” AHA recommended.

“Hospital-community partnership structures can range from informal/loosely affiliated (for example, a task force of cross-sector experts to focus on a singular short-term issue) to more formalized arrangements, such as the creation of a new 501(c)(3) organization.”

Coordinating operational responsibilities

Partnership extends to more than just agreeing on a mission, the report authors said. Rather, hospitals and their community partners need to look at how they will work together, logistically speaking.

“Operationally, clearly defined roles and responsibilities should be established, including for current and future partners,” the report noted. “Formalizing a process through a charter or memorandum of understanding can be helpful for partners to understand their and others’ responsibilities in a collective effort. Additionally, it is important to agree to pre-established mechanisms for resolving disagreements or differences of opinion.”

There is no “right answer” for how to resolve disagreements, the report authors added. Instead, consensus is more important than process. Additionally, employee a third-party communicator may be helpful for projects involving multiple stakeholders.

Allowing for future program innovation

A community-based health program will likely not succeed on the first try, opening the door for iteration and innovation. Using human-centered innovation and place-based thinking, organizations can work to adapt to the actual needs of the community.

“Without this vital connection to the communities they serve, hospitals and health systems can quickly become out of touch with the patients they serve. These misaligned priorities can in turn lead to poor health outcomes.”

Ultimately, healthcare organizations might find themselves partnering with non-traditional partners, who are ultimately better equipped to reach patients where they’re at. In these cases, it will be key for organizations to continue working with other local groups who might also have experience working with that non-traditional partner.

Measuring community-based partnership success

Of course, measuring program success will involve a number of common themes: quality metrics improvement, improved patient satisfaction, positive feedback from community health partners, and perceived community health improvement.

But AHA cautioned healthcare organizations and partners continue eyeing return on investment, a key part of justifying community investment.

“Additionally, comparing the cost of building community partnerships and strengthening outreach versus the dollar amount of continued patient care that would need to be spent without such hospital-community partnerships, may also tell a story of success,” AHA concluded. “Measurements of community partnership success rates may reflect both short and long-term impacts, but all should support greater community health outcomes in the future.”

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