The scope and multifaceted approach necessary to improve population health calls for something more than a single organization working alone. Collaboration is key, and many hospitals and health systems are taking the lead in partnering with community organizations to improve the health and well-being of people in their communities. Hospital and health system board members can tap into their community connections to help identify and assess potential partner organizations, sustain the partnerships and “pause and reflect” on the partnership’s work and accomplishments.

To guide such collaborations, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Hospital Association’s Health Research & Educational Trust have released “A Playbook for Fostering Hospital-Community Partnerships to Build a Culture of Health.” According to the playbook, building a “Culture of Health” means creating a society that gives all individuals an equal opportunity to live the healthiest life they can. Fostering effective, sustainable hospital-community partnerships is integral for building a Culture of Health and expanding opportunities and programs for community health improvement.

Finding suitable partners

With strong community connections, hospital and health system board members can help identify potential partner organizations and the assets they bring to the table. Using an assets-based approach will sharpen the focus on using and sharing community resources and, in the process, build stronger relationships between organizations. As the authors explain, assets valuable to hospital-community partnerships working to build a Culture of Health cover a wide range of resources, including subject-matter expertise, information technology and technical support, grant-writing assistance, transportation (moving trucks, buses and so forth), expanded staff and volunteers, and cultural understanding.

Desirable characteristics in partner organizations include infrastructure, leadership support, existing partnerships, ease of partnering and a similar mission. The playbook provides strategies and tools for identifying potential partners, building consensus and accountability with partnering organizations, evaluating partnership effectiveness, spreading improvement ideas and overcoming common obstacles.

Sustaining the partnership

Transparent communication, long-term funding and strong leadership are important to sustaining the partnership. For example, creating a financial sustainability committee at the start of the partnership is recommended by the authors, and hospital or health system trustees with relevant experience can serve on such a committee. This committee would help obtain funds and resources, be mindful of the operating budget, transition from one funder to another in case of a grant's termination, meet funders' requirements and timelines, and keep funders updated.

Pausing and reflecting

Opportunities to pause and reflect create time for the hospital and community stakeholders to informally evaluate the partnership’s work and programs and celebrate accomplishments. The authors suggest setting aside two full days and allowing time for:

  • Roundtable conversations, including executive leaders, about the mission and vision of current and future work. Share why and how the hospital or health system is invested in the community.
  • Visits into the community to see some programs in action.
  • Meetings with community partners and stakeholders. Ask about their work in the community and the partnership.
  • A chance to debrief and reflect.

Hospital and health system trustees have connections in their communities that will be valuable in building effective partnerships to improve community health. “A Playbook for Fostering Hospital-Community Partnerships to Build a Culture of Health” includes recommendations, tools and worksheets. Download the guide here

HRET is hosting a free webinar Thursday to discuss actionable strategies and lessons learned for cultivating successful partnerships, with health care leaders from Sinai Health System in Chicago and St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, Maine. Register for the webinar here

Cynthia Hedges Greising is a communications specialist with the Health Research & Educational Trust.