Mind the Gap: A New Kind of Partnership Can Upend the Roots of Poor Health

Contributor: Maurice Jones
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image010.pngLast year, Randy Oostra, the CEO of ProMedica in Toledo, Ohio related an epiphany that changed the way he ran his enterprise.  His insight came at a time when he and his staff were discovering just how many patients in ProMedica’s network of hospitals experienced food insecurity. In 2016, 36 percent of families from under-invested communities who rely on ProMedica’s services said they were concerned about having enough to eat.

It’s well-documented that hunger, and the stress that goes with it, can lead to a host of chronic diseases and behavioral health issues — everything from low birthweight and cognitive development problems to obesity and infections. Food, Randy realized, was a “medicine” that people who visited ProMedica needed. 

So, in 2015, in response to that revelation, he instituted a food clinic at ProMedica — an onsite pantry where patients can pick up free, nutritious groceries. It was truly a revolutionary approach, and right away, the health system’s practitioners began seeing improvements in patient wellness. Emergency room visits and readmission rates dropped dramatically. More clients began seeking primary care services, before health concerns became emergencies.

Randy understood that broad economic and social issues — the social determinants of health — had to be addressed if ProMedica was to fulfill its mission to create a healthier community. And he sought partners who shared this mission. That’s when he reached out to my organization, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).  In March of this year, our companies announced a joint commitment to invest $45 million in Toledo’s residents and unserved neighborhoods in ways that support the well-being of all people: in programs that connect residents to financial education, in the preservation and development of healthy affordable housing; in athletic fields and infrastructure necessary for children and adults to exercise and play; and in quality education. 

Randy and ProMedica are extraordinary pioneers, and fortunately, their spirit is spreading.  Month by month, American health systems are embracing Randy’s epiphany. They are amassing a growing body of data demonstrating that opportunity is arguably the most effective and resilient medicine. And as a result, they’re teaming up with community developers like LISC to tackle the root causes of chronic disease and poverty in order to strengthen communities. 

The healthcare industry possesses invaluable resources for addressing the social determinants of health. Hospitals, for example, are filled with incredible talent who can help organizations like mine be strategic about shaping our work with the people and places we both serve.

Community developers are well positioned to collaborate with healthcare systems and deliver the expertise and partnerships that catalyze opportunity in communities. Together, we have the commitment, financial and people resources and the know-how to improve population health and upend health disparities. Over the next decade at LISC, we will be intentionally and aggressively pursuing health outcomes as part of our projected $10 billion in investment in low wealth communities across the country. 

The kind of partnership we are undertaking with ProMedica is an exciting innovation, and one that’s already proving its effectiveness. Our first collaboration with Randy and his team, in 2016, was opening a Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) at the organization’s new health center, bringing one-one-one financial coaching, employment counseling, and income supports to patients who could use those services. 

I’ll never forget the story of 64-year-old Michael Elliott, who came to ProMedica for cancer treatment wearing rubber bands around the cuffs of his pants. He told a staff member at the food clinic that the bands helped keep bed bugs from biting him at the shelter where he slept. Right away, ProMedica connected him with a coach at the FOC, so he could get services and find a stable home. Within a month of his first meeting, Elliott had a safe, clean apartment of his own, and he continues to receive budget and income support counseling so his Social Security payments go as far as they can.

We hear other stories of lives similarly transformed through our growing number of healthcare partnerships.  When Bon Secours Health System was evaluating how to support the community around a hospital it owned in Richmond, VA, the leadership connected with LISC to figure out ways to improve the quality of life and boost incomes for residents in the adjacent Church Hill neighborhood, which experiences high rates of poverty and where life expectancy is 20 percent lower than in a more affluent nearby neighborhood. One solution was to work to attract new businesses to the area by providing grants and small business coaching in Church Hill for a program known as Supporting East End Entrepreneur Development, or SEED. The program has been so successful in spurring entrepreneurship and economic development there that other institutions are now replicating it. 

In another corner of the country, in Brockton, MA, a city that has suffered from decades of underinvestment, LISC leveraged nearly $18 million in investment to create a health center side-by-side with a grocery store, enlivening a blighted commercial corridor, reducing crime, and creating new jobs. The goal is to make primary healthcare, healthy eating, and better living conditions readily available to residents of a community where diabetes and heart disease rates are disproportionately high. 

We aspire to accelerate this work.  There’s incredible promise in collaborations between healthcare and the social enterprise sector. The healthcare industry stewards some $500 billion in annual investment assets. It is providing capital and grant funding, and helping to measure the impact of community transformation work. Community developers are helping healthcare organizations build and deepen relationships with the community, tackle the root causes of chronic disease, and work on policies that promote systemic change. By combining assets, knowledge, and experience, the two industries – which share a compelling mission to help heal people and communities - can close our country’s unacceptable and costly gaps in life expectancy.

This is an urgent invitation to all of us, as leaders in our industries and as a society, to change the way we do business, and to change the way we deliver healthcare. We know, irrefutably, that the very best medicine is the medicine that keeps us from getting sick in the first place: social, emotional, and financial stability. We owe it to ourselves, and our communities, to make that medicine available to everyone as swiftly as we can.

Contact Maurice at: [email protected]