UGA Helps Hospitals Develop Plans to Build Healthier Communities

Charlie Bauder

Monday, June 28th, 2021

Fanning Institute assists hospitals with community health plans, strategies

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one of the most important things people can do for their own health is to engage in regular physical activity.

But back in 2017, officials at Candler County Hospital in Metter, Ga. discovered local residents looking to exercise faced a significant barrier.

“When we surveyed residents as part of our Community Health Needs Assessment, people said they felt like they didn’t have access to spaces to work out in the community,” said David Flanders, who served as CEO of Candler County Hospital in 2017 and is currently CEO of Washington County Regional Medical Center.

Candler County Hospital turned to the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of University of Georgia Public Service and Outreach, to help develop an action plan with strategies for the hospital to implement to address the health needs identified by the community.

“Once we compiled all of the data from the community, Fanning helped us analyze the feedback and presented it in a manner that enabled us to clearly identify priorities and implement strategies to address them,” Flanders said.

As a result, within a year of working with the Fanning Institute on that plan, Candler County Hospital renovated its physical therapy area into a community wellness center with workout equipment and classroom space.

“We created a user-friendly, accessible community space that included 24-hour card access, discounted memberships and space to teach classes on diabetes and cardiopulmonary education,” Flanders said. “It was well-received within the community, helped enable people to pursue a healthier lifestyle and directly addressed several priorities identified by the community through the health needs assessment.”

Building healthier communities

The Internal Revenue Service requires all nonprofit hospitals to conduct a regular Community Health Needs Assessment, which looks at a hospital’s service area, collects feedback from residents in the service area, identifies health needs in a community and outlines strategies for addressing those needs.

In some cases, a hospital’s service area may consist of a single community. But other hospitals may have to assess and address needs across multiple counties with diverse populations.

For example, St. Mary’s Health Care System – based in Athens – serves a 17-county region that ranges from Lavonia in the north all the way to Greensboro in the south and includes three hospitals along with other health care facilities.

“The Community Health Needs Assessment plays a pivotal role in our strategic planning process,” said Tamara Bourda, regional vice president for community health and well-being for St. Mary’s Health Care System. “Sometimes what we see in our facilities doesn’t fully reflect all of the health care needs our communities have. This process helps us identify those needs and effectively target resources to address them.”

In 2019, the Fanning Institute facilitated focus groups throughout St. Mary’s service area to help gather information for the assessment from residents, collected and analyzed that information and then facilitated meetings with hospital leaders to develop implementation strategies to meet the health care needs identified in the community.

“Robust, diverse data collection methods helps ensure leaders have the best information with which to make decisions and set priorities,” said Carolina Darbisi, Fanning Institute senior public service faculty. “This often means traveling into communities and ensuring that we bring everyone’s voice into the process.”

The Fanning Institute’s work to collect data from rural communities within St. Mary’s service area was beneficial, said Mark Ralston, public relations manager for St. Mary’s Health Care System.

“Fanning’s efforts on rural outreach during the Community Health Needs Assessment process helped provide a better picture of the community’s health care needs,” Ralston said.

Determining those community health needs and working to improve outcomes has real economic impact.

According to a January 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unplanned worker absences for diabetes alone cost U.S. employers $20 billion annually in lost productivity and the indirect costs of diabetes to employers may approach $90 billion per year.

In addition, the report stated that poor health “generates costs for employers, such as greater healthcare expenses; and higher rates of disability, absences for illness and medical appointments, and presenteeism (working while sick) generate indirect costs that reduce workforce productivity and contribute to declines in labor force participation.”

Rural communities in particular often identify diabetes, along with cardiopulmonary issues, as health needs that the hospital plays a leadership role in addressing, said Flanders.

“The Community Health Needs Assessment allows us to identify those needs, and Fanning is very helpful in helping us fine-tune the list of needs, create priorities and timelines for addressing those year-by-year,” he explained.

An ongoing process

Hospitals must produce a new assessment every three years, making it a regular part of the planning process.

The continuous nature of the assessment helps drive the hospital’s long-term strategy, Bourda said.

“Assessing community-level health outcomes takes a longer period of time and the Community Health Needs Assessment allows us to consistently examine our priorities and the community’s needs over the long term, which helps develop deeper roots in the communities we serve,” she explained.

When St. Mary’s worked with Fanning on its 2019 assessment, it marked the renewal of a partnership that began with the 2016 assessment.

“Having previously worked with St. Mary’s in 2016 allowed us to really build off of that in the 2019 assessment,” said Maritza Soto Keen, Fanning Institute senior public service faculty. “The 2016 assessment helped inform our work and strengthened the final report.”

Flanders also maintained his working relationship with the Fanning Institute when he became CEO at Washington County Regional Medical Center in 2018, contracting with the institute to help develop the hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment implementation strategies for 2021-2024.

While that work continues, Washington County Regional Medical Center has already begun work to address needs identified as part of the ongoing assessment process, expanding access to specialist care and women’s health services through the hospital.

The Fanning Institute’s support and expertise in strategic planning and data analysis have proven pivotal to efforts in both Candler and Washington counties to improve health care, Flanders said.

“The Fanning Institute and UGA provide a tremendous service to rural hospitals and deliver high-quality service and support,” he said.

The health of a community factors significantly into the strength of a community, both economically and socially, said Matt Bishop, director of the Fanning Institute.

“In communities of all sizes, hospitals assume a leadership role in improving the health and wellness of their citizens,” Bishop said. “Our faculty and staff can support hospitals of all sizes with organizational development efforts such as data collection, strategic planning and leadership development that will help hospitals build healthier communities.”

To learn how the Fanning Institute can assist hospitals with needs assessments, strategic planning or other services, contact Maritza Soto Keen.