We have all observed the stress and strain on community hospitals from the COVID-19 crisis. Yet hospitals and medical practices have endured pressures since long before the pandemic, driven by the ongoing trend of M&A activity and closures.

According to JAMA, 78 of the more than 2,150 rural non-specialist US hospitals closed between 2010 and 2017. PwC found that hospital merger and acquisition activity increased 19% in 2019, and Avalere Health and the Physicians Advisory Institute notes that hospitals acquired 8,000 medical practices between 2016 and 2018.

While becoming part of a health system’s larger network offers many benefits to a community hospital, it also presents a clear challenge for hospital leaders. With this shift, hospitals and health systems risk losing their connection to patients and the unique needs of a specific community.

Hospital communicators and strategy leaders: Read on for actionable counsel from G&S Healthcare SVP Rachael Adler.

Reframe your role in the community, even if that means adjusting your timeline.

A recent Fortune article highlights the importance of hospitals as more than simply triage centers. Rather, they should be “active participants in the community on issues such as environmental sustainability, food security, mental health services, and actively engaging the populations that they serve.”

Over the last several years, we have seen meaningful progress in this space. According to the latest Population Health Survey from the American Hospital Association (AHA), 86% of respondents reported that community health is reflected in their broader organizational strategies.

However, COVID-19 has stunted plans for even the most aspirational community hospital leaders. Budgets have been slashed, and social distancing makes community involvement increasingly difficult. If this is the case in your organization, consider smaller, incremental steps that address the most critical issues facing your community now. Then look ahead to what you can reasonably accomplish in one, three or five years.

Understand your community’s individual needs.

COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated existing public health issues, so now is the time to address these societal challenges and the underlying social determinants of health in each community. Just as no two communities are identical, the goals and tactics of a hospital’s community health plan will vary depending on the collective needs of its patients. If your community is experiencing food insecurity as its primary challenge, then consider establishing a food bank connected directly to the hospital. Once you have a firm understanding of the elements in your community health plan that should be improved, you can develop a communications strategy that meets your patients’ needs.

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Meet your community members where they are.

To ensure a program is meeting its goals – and, more importantly, that the community has access to the support it needs – you must consider the best way to engage and motivate your patients. This might include partnering with the leader of a local non-profit, business or government body to serve as a trusted spokesperson. Or it might be prioritizing promotion on channels where the primary audience is already actively engaged, whether it be on specific social channels or more traditional local print and broadcast media outlets. The tactical approach will vary based on the regional, societal, or demographic make-up of your community, yet is critical to achieving success.

Set clear, measurable benchmarks.

As with any undertaking, strategic measurement and data-driven insights are key to understanding whether an initiative is truly achieving the overarching organizational objectives. However, in the AHA survey, 68% of respondents reported that while they employ community investment strategies, they don’t yet measure the returns generated on these investments.

First, align on what success looks like with a community health action plan. Then, identify attainable benchmarks to measure against throughout the entire process. This will help to ensure these plans stay on track and drive future changes.

In the end, the ultimate goal of community engagement efforts is to build the trust and rapport needed to keep patients healthy. Too often, patients do not prioritize their healthcare because they find the system too complex to navigate, they feel uncertain about what they need, or they are unable to attain the resources they need and don’t know where to turn for help.

By championing community health initiatives, hospitals and health systems can break down these barriers and empower patients to access the care they need, improving not only your reputation in the eyes of patients but also the health of the communities you serve.

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