Large healthcare organizations around the country are stepping up their efforts to reduce socio-economic, racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes in their communities.
Leaders recognize that far more than clinical care, socio-economic factors largely determine people’s health and well-being. So progressive-thinking executives like former Kaiser Permanente chairman and CEO Bernard Tyson, who died in November, have spearheaded investments and partnerships in affordable housing, job-creating economic development, education, nutrition, healthy behaviors, and other social determinants of health.
“People think what these communities need is charity,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “No. What they need are jobs.”
In early November, 14 of the country’s largest hospital systems pledged to invest more than $700 million over five years in community-based initiatives to address economic revitalization, housing instability and food insecurity. That effort is being coordinated by the Democracy Collaborative’s Healthcare Anchor Network, which now includes 46 health systems.
Also in November, Rush revamped its supply chain operations to focus on its mission as a community anchor institution, helping build wealth and well-being in the surrounding low-income, minority communities on Chicago’s West Side. Life expectancy in those neighborhoods is 16 years shorter than in the nearby downtown area.
One of the root causes of the life expectancy gap is the loss of good-paying jobs, and Rush intends to tackle that, Ansell said. What Rush does “has to be good for our patients, good for business, and good for the community,” he said. “If we thread those needs, we could do something great.”
Working with its new supply chain partner, Concordance Health, Rush’s latest economic development plan is to rebuild a warehouse distribution facility on the West Side and commit to hiring the majority of workers from those neighborhoods. The old facility was outdated and slated for closure. Renovating it will spare the jobs of 30 to 40 people, with the potential for hiring 80 more.
Rush also is working with Lurie Children’s Hospital, Amita Health, Cook County Health, Sinai Health System and the University of Illinois Hospital to increase hospital hiring from the surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, the group, called West Side United, is expanding local sourcing of supplies and services, supporting small-business development, and connecting local high school and college students to pre-professional experiences.
Cleveland hospitals also are actively addressing these social determinants of health. Modern Healthcare recently visited that city to report on promising initiatives by Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth in the areas of economic development, education and job training. Modern Healthcare also hosted an event there centered on social determinants of health.
The three accompanying stories show how those health systems have partnered with other organizations to develop projects that help their surrounding communities as well as their own business interests. In two of those initiatives, the hospitals leveraged supply chain purchasing decisions to advance social goals.
Still, it remains to be seen if healthcare organizations have the savvy, resources and commitment it will take to bend the arc toward greater economic equity and better health.
“Some of us believe there’s no one left to deal with social determinants of health because society and government have failed to deal with it, business has failed and nonprofits have been ineffective,” said Dr. Akram Boutros, MetroHealth’s CEO. “We feel we must give it a try.”
Alex Kacik contributed to this report.