Breaking out far beyond the four walls of their institutions, hospitals are engaging with their communities more than ever, with a greater focus on health education, healthy living, and disease prevention. Driven by a competitive healthcare environment, changing reimbursement models, and the rising costs of healthcare, hospitals around the country continue to step up to the plate, embracing their roles as community leaders and preaching health and wellness.

Essentially, hospitals’ traditional role as medical treatment centers has already been redefined, as is the case at Glacial Ridge Health System in St. Cloud, Minnesota. “Our mission is to provide high-quality services, which enhance the quality of life and promote healthy lifestyles for our patients, clients, employees, organization, and communities. To that end, educating our community on disease prevention and early detection is a significant aspect of what we do,” explains Diane Meyer, GRHS marketing and communications manager.

Operating under a similar banner, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Rahway, New Jersey, provides about $20 million in unreimbursed medical care every year, and actively serves as an educational resource for the community. “That means education to help people manage their diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or congestive heart failure, and it means teaching them about controlling weight or preventing pressure ulcers or falls,” says Public Affairs Manager Donna Mancuso.

Not only do such community outreach events, programs, and classes boost a hospital’s reputation, but they make fiscal sense as well.

“Better [medical] outcomes mean fewer follow-up appointments and hospital re-admits, both critical to managing health and cutting healthcare costs,” Meyer adds.

Whether it’s promoting weight management to prevent diabetes, throwing away cigarettes before the threat of lung cancer, or supporting exercise and good eating habits to reduce the risk of heart attack or strokes, Baptist Health South Florida also embraces community education as a key part of its mission. In addition to the organization’s seven hospitals, Baptist Health runs more than 30 outpatient centers to bring primary healthcare closer to its population.

“Primary and preventive care are the best ways to treat the uninsured and less fortunate in our community who often don’t seek medical care,” CEO Brian Keeley says. “In our system alone, it saves millions of dollars for patients, insurers, and the government by avoiding costly and unnecessary emergency room visits and hospital admissions.”

Meanwhile, Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, actively seeks out partnerships with healthcare providers, the local public health department, universities and technical colleges, and local businesses to combine forces when it comes to promoting healthy living. The local media also has made a similar commitment, as evidenced by its generous coverage of health initiatives and programming, according to Sarah Havens, Gundersen’s community and preventive care services director.

Putting theory into action

For example, Gunderson’s Minutes in Motion program challenges community residents to incorporate 30 minutes of activity every day for six weeks, while its Smartest Loser initiative encourages weight loss for health network employees and business partners. 

At St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, the hospital’s Asian Pacific Liver Center has screened more than 10,000 people for hepatitis B virus infection since 2008, while the Multicultural Health Awareness and Prevention Center offers free mammography, flu shots, and other basic screenings at both its own annual health fair and 20 other community health fairs every year, according to Marketing Director Sharon Greengold. In addition, St. Vincent’s Health Benefits Resource Center helps community members obtain insurance coverage, food stamps, and other supportive services.

Back in the Midwest, Indiana University Health has initiated a number of innovative programs to encourage healthy eating, especially in lower income areas. In particular, Garden on the Go is a mobile produce truck that sells subsidized fruits and vegetables to Indianapolis’s “food deserts,” where quality, affordable food is not readily available. A national Hospital Charitable Services Award finalist in 2011, the program plans to incorporate healthy cooking demonstrations this year.

“Garden on the Go surpassed 7,000 sales in just less than seven months, and a survey of shoppers found 83% eat more produce now thanks to the truck. In addition, we expanded the route from 12 to 16 stops after just a few months of service and constantly receive solicitations for new stop locations,” explains IU Health’s Ron Stiver, senior vice president, engagement and public affairs.

Along these same lines, Riley School Gardens enables public school students to plant gardens at 10 different school grounds, and Indy Urban Acres is a partnership with Indy Parks and the Indianapolis Parks Foundation, where produce is grown on an 8-acre organic urban farm on the city’s east side. “The fresh, healthy produce goes to Gleaners Community Food Bank, which distributes the food to local agencies within a day of receiving,” Stiver says.

After strategically selecting specific areas of health education, based upon community needs, Glacial Ridge Hospital’s medical staff gave a series of community presentations on topics including breast health and early detection, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular health, and the top 10 recommended wellness exams. In addition, the hospital hosted three “lunch and learns,” played a major role in three community health awareness events, and put energy into its Facebook page, posting new content several times per week, along with an e-newsletter sharing the latest medical news, official screening recommendations, injury and illness prevention, and health and fitness tips, according to Meyer.

Leveraging its considerably larger base of operations, Baptist Health offered more than 200 lectures, sessions, and screenings last year with more than 30,000 in attendance, in addition to 50 support groups and more than 200 exercise classes. As part of the organization’s wellness initiative to make Baptist Health employees the healthiest workforce in America, “we offer eight free gyms open around the clock, special employee physician care hours, a disease management Health Check program, healthy meals, screenings, lifestyle seminars, discounted medical care, and other benefits,” explains Keeley.

With the ultimate goal of creating a positive image and making the community feel that a particular hospital is friendly, interesting, and approachable, the Chicago-based agencyEA specializes in helping institution’s identify their community’s needs and then plan experiential-type events to help fulfill them. For example, the agency helped set up community tours for the city’s new Rush University Medical Center, ambulance tours, and a teddy bear clinic where kids could have their stuffed animals “checked” by a doctor, much like the famous Norman Rockwell “Doctor and Doll” painting.

“These simple yet focused opportunities demonstrate to the community the range of services that the hospital offers and let attendees kn
ow they are welcome in the new building. In the past, we have also involved local sports teams in the events to talk about their unique health challenges or conditions,” says Senior Account Manager Emily Olson.


Community feedback

Beyond the enthusiastic turnout that many of these hospitals are receiving at these community-based events and programs, a number of other indications are proving that hospitals are on the right track.

For example, in Indianapolis, a local senior citizen advocacy group presented IU Health’s Garden on the Go program with a community outreach award; several IU Health representatives have been invited to sit on panels throughout the state and nation discussing the organization’s community efforts in fighting obesity and diabetes; and last fall, the White House invited the organization to speak about improving communities through creative partnerships.

Meanwhile, at GRHS, employee satisfaction scores are high, the organization’s market share has been steadily increasing over the past few years, and “comments on satisfaction surveys, in-person to staff and word-of-mouth recommendations are more prominent as are the cards and letters of appreciation from patients and their families to staff,” Meyer says.

Describing Baptist Health’s patient satisfaction surveys as being off the charts, Keeley relates that the organization has received numerous awards, including Fortune Magazine, Working Mother, and Modern Healthcare “Best Place to Work” distinctions. Other “platinum” awards include Best Employer for Healthy Lifestyles from the National Business Group on Health from 2005 to 2010, the Well Workplace award from the Wellness Council of America during the same period, and the Fit-Friendly Company award from the American Heart Association from 2007 to 2010.


Looking ahead

As the nation’s healthcare spectrum continues to shift in the wake of healthcare reform, hospitals anticipate that their role as community leaders will only increase moving forward.

“As the paradigm shifts from treating diseases to preventing diseases, there will be more community outreach and preventative screening,” St. Vincent’s Greengold says.

Ultimately, hospitals need to be providing tools to their communities to help them approach an optimal state of health, according to Gundersen’s Havens.

“We can impact healthcare costs by creating a healthier culture—people seeking health rather than care for illness or injury alone,” she says. “Also, as we look at different ways of delivering healthcare, we need to be looking outside the walls for opportunities to deliver screening, education, and services as effectively and efficiently as we can, while keeping care patient-centered and community-focused.” HCD


Building projects: Engaging the community

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett

Beyond healthcare education and wellness programs, one of the ways in which healthcare providers are actively engaging their communities is in the realm of facilities planning and building projects.

In fact, community reaction and reception is almost always a key ingredient in any hospital’s strategic plan as their ultimate goal is obviously to serve their communities. Consequently, to guide building activities, healthcare organizations frequently conduct market research to gather input from patients, doctors, local businesses, and residents, according to Emily Olson, account manager, agencyEA, a Chicago-based experiential marketing agency with a specialty in the healthcare sector. “They then host tours throughout the process to keep the community informed and aware of how the new building is taking shape.”

For example, when Indiana University (IU) Health embarked upon the planning and design of a new 10-story family care tower, among their first activities was a visioning exercise where families in the community were asked to draw pictures of what a healing environment should look like.

“As the project moved forward, families were again involved as focus group participants responding to questions from the architects and design staff about what was important to them in a healing environment, what amenities would be helpful in a patient room or on the unit, how comfortable the furniture was, and the ideal placement of features in the room,” explains Ron Stiver, senior vice president, engagement and public affairs, IU Health, Indianapolis.

Similarly, at Baptist Health South Florida, an expansion of sites and services is guided by a professional team of strategic planners who work closely with community stakeholders, including elected officials, community leaders, and homeowner associations. 

“A good example of our community involvement was evident in our planning process for the new West Kendall Baptist Hospital that opened in April 2011,” CEO Brian Keeley says. “This suburban community, mobilized by the interest to have a trusted healthcare facility in its proximity, submitted close to 5,000 letters to Florida legislators to express the urgent need for a hospital in West Kendall. This gave way to the issuance of a certificate of need to support the addition of a brand new hospital in Miami-Dade County.”

Meanwhile, at IU Health, community engagement doesn’t stop once a new facility is built. On the contrary, the organization performs what it calls “rounding” exercises to assess how the community is using the facility.

“By engaging project managers, nurses, physicians, maintenance staff, and coordinators for patient experience, we are continuously building a pool of evidence to understand what happens to our facilities when patients, families, vendors, service providers, and others interact with them,” Stiver says.