Specifically, hospital boards and leaders need to get the word out about the changes sweeping through health care.

That’s what panelists said Monday during “Engaging in Board and Community Conversations While Transitioning to New Payment and Delivery Models,” a session at the American Hospital Association’s Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, which also featured the presentation of an AHA award that day.

“My board is volunteer. When they speak, it’s from their heart,” said Joann Anderson, president and CEO of Southeastern Health, a system based in Lumberton, N.C., in rural Robeson County.

At the same time, Anderson stressed, management-board partnerships are essential to keep trustees on top of issues facing their organization so they can speak to the community. Hospitals need to have “board members who can articulate the reasons why,” she said.

“Just being educated and what it takes as a board member are really important,” said Joseph Roberts, M.D., a Southeastern Health board member.

Although board education is important, it’s just a prerequisite for health care organizations’ next step: reaching out, panelists said. “In order to transition to these new care models, you’re going to need acceptance and buy-in from the community,” said Priya Bathija, AHA senior associate director, policy, who moderated the session attended by mostly rural hospital trustees.

Carrie Saia, CEO of Holton Community Hospital in Holton, Kan., described the important role played by her 12-bed critical access hospital’s five-member patient-family advisory council. “Having department heads take a step back and just run it by this council first is a great help,” she said.

One of the focuses of the session was how hospitals can guide discussion of health care access — the talk came immediately after a report and discussion about the AHA’s Task Force on Ensuring Access in Vulnerable Communities. Anderson, an AHA Regional Policy Board member, and Saia are on the task force.

From the board’s perspective, it’s important to ask: “Is this improving access? Is this affordable? How am I going to pitch this to the community?” said Bobbie McGrath, board vice chair at Holton.

The Kansas hospital also has held focus groups for people outside its walls. “Women’s health has been a big push for our community,” McGrath said.

The role of physicians on the board and in the community sparked interest from session attendees. While many said they believed physicians were an important link between the hospital and the community — especially in rural areas — some trustees in the room said it can be difficult to engage doctors, and some said they worried about conflicting interests between physicians and the hospital.

“Some of their issues are that they’re struggling. They’re working very hard and trying to maintain their business,” said Roberts.

Collaboration and cooperation also were central in a conference workshop Sunday. There, attendees were told that taking responsibility along with collaboration between boards and management are the keys to governance.

Pamela Knecht, president of Accord Limited in Chicago, talked about governance best practices to about 100 participants, again mainly rural hospital trustees, in an interactive session titled “Reaching for the Stars: Excellence in Government. “I would argue especially that leadership by the board is critical right now,” Knecht said.

Knecht laid out some categories of good governance practices, including being strategic, nimble, intentional, competency-based and accountable.

“The world is changing so that we’re not just on hospital boards anymore. We’re going to be overseeing care systems,” Knecht said. By this, Knecht added, she meant responsibility over a continuum of patient-centered care rather than over a health system, especially as value-base payment methods become more common even for rural hospitals.

Greater board responsibility — for population health management, partnerships and coordinated care — requires greater cooperation, Knecht said, especially with hospital management.

Knecht gave what amounted to a primer in governance, turning to the nitty-gritty of board-management roles, meeting procedures and board makeup.

When it comes to board composition, she said that not only should boards be more diverse in areas like gender, but they should strive to include members with diverse professional backgrounds and skills.

For rural hospitals, that doesn’t have to be impossible. “You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to serve on the board of a not-for-profit health system even when they don’t live in that community,” Knecht said.

And self-evaluation is always important for boards, she said. To make the self-evaluation medicine go down more easily, Knecht had a tip: “Start with the board as a whole, then move to the individual.”

“Board members themselves have to take responsibility for making sure that their board is as high-performing as possible,” Knecht said after the session. “Their community’s going to hold them accountable.”

On Monday at the conference, AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack presented the 2016 AHA Rural Hospital Leadership Award to Rodney Nelson, president and CEO of Mackinac Straits Health System in St. Ignace, Mich., who is set to retire in July after 18 years in his position. Among Mackinac Straits’ initiatives are a partnership with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians on population health.

“You have improved the lives of thousands of patients and families,” Pollack told Nelson.