While the United States spends more on healthcare than any other developed nation, we do not have the best health outcomes. Growing concern surrounds the declining life expectancy, high rates of maternal deaths, obesity, and other chronic illnesses in the United States. In fact, chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, are the leading causes of death and disability in America. However, many of the illnesses that make Americans unhealthy are preventable. With more than 80 percent of what makes us healthy and, conversely unhealthy, resulting from our environment and our behavior, where we live, work and play affects our health. These social determinants of health are a key focus for intervention. Increasingly, many local communities are turning to multi-sector partnerships to tackle this concern.
One such partnership is between businesses and local governmental public health agencies. With the interconnected link between health and financial well-being, there is an important case for both sectors to work in tandem to address workplace and larger community health issues. Currently, there are few examples of these partnerships in the United States.
The Bipartisan Policy Center and the de Beaumont Foundation released a report in June 2019 titled, Good Health is Good Business. In this blog post, we explore some of the key highlights from that report.
While many businesses address employee health through employee wellness programs, this can only go so far to change health outcomes. Many employee wellness programs do not reach into the community to positively impact an employee’s family or address the home environment in which an employee lives. It is imperative that businesses shift to an external culture of health model that looks to address social determinants of health within the larger community. In doing so, businesses may see returns in employee productivity due to decreases in sick leave, improved moral and a generally healthier workforce. The link between health and financial well-being is well established. Diana Farrell, president and CEO of the JPMorgan Chase Institute, noted at BPC’s event to release the report that when employees lack the financial means it can lead to deferred care, which in turn can lead to negative health outcomes. In her speech, Farrell emphasized the importance of getting care when you need it, not only when you can pay for it.
These partnerships are a win-win for both businesses and public health agencies. Agencies have the training, knowledge and mission to ensure the conditions in which people live are healthy, which can make businesses successful. Businesses offer public health agencies leadership, resources, and a deep connection to the community. The U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, said in keynote remarks at the event, “When we make the case for community health as a pathway to economic prosperity, we then foster the investment in our communities that not only improves population health but raises collective financial success and also national and local security.”
Adams emphasized that the formula to success starts with family sustaining careers, as well as strong housing, education, quality childcare, access to safe places to play, and nutritious food. “When you put that all together you have healthy people, and if we multiply this effect across communities, we will get a robust economy. It all starts with investments in community health,” said Adams.
BPC’s report explains that for any initiative to succeed there needs to be strong leadership. True partnerships require: 1) motivated and committed leaders; 2) shared leadership; and 3) strategic planning and establishing common ground. However, it is important to understand that leaders can and often do change. Therefore, it is essential to build sustainable partnerships by reaching out and involving the entire community. Also on BPC’s June panel, Fort Worth, TX, Mayor Betsy Price and former Nashville, TN, Mayor Bill Purcell advocated for increasing outreach to schools and places of worship to strengthen community buy-in and ensure sustainable endeavors. The panel also included Kansas City, MO, Health Director Dr. Rex Archer who emphasized that sustainability also comes in the form of developing the next generation of leaders. BPC’s report suggests that communities should look for stable, non-political leaders who will outlast individual political and executive leadership and be engaged over the long-term on projects.
BPC’s report notes that good data can’t be understated and shows how it can help drive decisions for communities. Data helps inform and direct projects, shed light on areas of concern and what needs to be improved, and tailor interventions upon evaluation. In leveraging the power of data, communities can create better, stronger and longer lasting partnerships. As Adams said in his June remarks, “All the science in the world doesn’t matter if people do not think you care about them. People need to know that you care before they care what you know.”
Establishing recognition programs is key to celebrating the success of exemplary and sustainable partnerships. Carolyn Cawley, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and another panelist at the June event, stressed the need to award people and companies for their good work in this area. In doing so, this will motivate existing partnerships and create pride in business-public health collaborations. This recognition can also positively influence public perception of a company and highlight their social responsibility. Incentivizing good work and highlighting successes will further demonstrate the need to invest in these partnerships and provide examples for other communities to follow suit.
While barriers exist when forming any collaboration, one barrier of note is potential communication challenges. All the event’s panelists agreed that relationships, peer networks, collaboration and consistent messaging are key. However, at times it may seem as if business and public health speak different languages. For example, “surveillance” is a word that denotes data collection and analysis in public health, but businesses may misinterpret this word to mean spying or subterfuge. Additionally, the term “social determinants of health” is often misunderstood outside of public health circles. BPC suggests framing language as “improving the community’s health” or “improving employee health.” Communication is key to any partnership; therefore, it is important to not get tied up on small details early on but rathe, ask for clarification, listen, and work from a place of mutual respect.
Another concern expressed during the June panel was the issue of equity and how to address barriers to good health and well-being. Price voiced the need to go to communities in need and explained the economic and moral reasons for advocating for community health for all. Purcell expressed that it is everyone’s joint responsibility to maintain community health—if a community is healthy, we are all healthy and better off. Adams emphasized that point in his earlier remarks, “Health outcomes are in large part determined by our circumstances. Your zip code is more important than your genetic code in determining health outcomes. Therefore, it is imperative to address the conditions in which we live.”
BPC’s report explains that environmental, social, physical, and economic factors shape what opportunities we have and the behaviors we can adopt for change. Shifting the health conversation to prevention, rather than only treating people when they are sick, will create healthier, more thriving communities.
Because every partnership and community is unique, strategies for successful partnerships will need to be altered accordingly. However, there are a number of ways to prepare and sustain strong partnerships. Here are a few examples outlined in the report:
- Develop a strategic map of local players
- Prepare an “ask”
- Recruit passionate leaders as initiative champions
- Focus on common problems (often described as “low hanging fruit”)
- Measure success and impacts
- Use multi-pronged communication strategies
- Disseminate and utilize existing tools and resources
- Distribute new and compelling case studies
- Establish recognition programs
- Fund demonstration programs
Working together, public health departments and business leaders can enhance their individual efforts to improve the health, well-being, and safety of individuals and families, and create thriving communities.