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How to Develop Community Health, Patient Outreach Efforts

Community health and patient outreach efforts should center on meeting the social needs of patients in rural and vulnerable urban areas, AHA says.

AHA offers a toolkit to help hospitals with community health and patient outreach efforts.

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By Sara Heath

- The AHA has published a toolkit to help drive community health and improve patient outreach efforts in rural regions and vulnerable urban communities.

As healthcare becomes increasingly value-based, hospitals are working to use their resources in the most efficient way possible to meet the needs of their individual communities. This means putting a larger focus on community health, which can help serve patients outside the four walls of the hospital. This will improve the health of the population at a lower healthcare cost.

“Transformation will require participation from more than just the hospital or health system,” AHA said, addressing hospitals. “As you begin to consider the emerging strategies included in the task force report, it is critical for you to engage with individuals from the community and work collaboratively to identify the needs most important to your community.”

“This engagement will allow hospitals and health systems to have a clearer understanding of the community, its health issues, the root causes of those issues and the availability of resources and assets to address them,” the organization continued.

This toolkit was geared toward helping hospitals begin the conversation about healthcare within their communities. AHA touched upon three key strategies: community conversation events, community health assessments, and social media in healthcare.

READ MORE: Public Health Org Aims to Meet Social Determinants of Health

The organization also touched upon relationship-building with individual patients, who can collaborate with providers during the care encounter.

Planning community conversation events

Community conversation events are community-wide meetings involving key stakeholders, who collaborate on solutions to the region’s largest health and community needs.

Before holding a community conversation, hospitals and health systems need to determine their end goals, AHA said. Which patient populations do hospitals want to engage? What topics will be discussed?

These events should yield a community-wide dialogue, an understanding of shared community needs, identified social determinants of health, and an understanding of how different strategies will impact their findings.

The event’s target audience can include most community members, but will likely include healthcare workers, patients (especially those who engage with healthcare more frequently), and community workers. Local businesses, social workers, and public or town officials are also a part of the target audience.

READ MORE: Using Patient Outreach to Spark Success in Bundled Payments

Community conversation events should be held in an accommodating location and have plenty of supplementary meeting materials to educate non-healthcare participants.

After the conversation, leaders should collect opinions and viewpoints from participants. How do they feel about identified solutions? Was their voice heard? What did they learn? What role do they play in community health?

Hospitals can obtain these answers through a post-meeting survey.

Conducting a community health assessment

Community health assessments usually take the form of a community-wide health survey. While the content of these surveys will vary depending upon the specific needs of a community, there is a general protocol these assessments follow.

Healthcare organizations should begin by identifying key topics and survey participants. Hospitals should focus on inclusivity to get a strong dataset. They should also focus on defining the community and determining which areas within the region are likely served by their facility.

READ MORE: The 3 Building Blocks Supporting Patient Engagement Strategies

From there, hospitals must administer the survey and collect and analyze data. Analysts will prioritize emerging health issues and document and communicate survey results.

Hospitals and community resources can then plan and implement their solutions. As with any innovation, healthcare professionals should evaluable progress at regular intervals.

“This engagement will allow hospitals to gain a clearer understanding of their community’s health needs and priorities, increase buy-in and a sense of shared responsibility for community health, and establish relationships with organizations and individuals who are community assets,” AHA wrote in the toolkit.

Community members will also benefit from completing this assessment. They’ll see stronger bonds between themselves and their healthcare providers and will ideally see their health concerns met.

Using social media for community outreach

Social media has proven powerful in driving community and public health. Seven in 10 patients use social media in their everyday lives, and half of smartphone owners use the internet to obtain health information, AHA reported.

Thus, social media is an important tool to communicate public health messages, the organization said.

“Along with traditional media, social media also offers a tremendous opportunity to share the community outreach, wellness and community health activities in which you are engaged,” AHA explained. “You will be able to reach key audiences simply and cost effectively.”

Social media is helpful in highlighting community partnerships such as ride share deals for hospital trips or healthy eating and wellness programs within the community. Hospitals can use social media as a patient education and outreach tool, informing patients of different community programs geared to improving health.

Social media is also useful for gauging patient feedback, AHA stated. Do community health deals help patients? How can these programs improve? Social media is an efficient tool for collecting those answers.

Partnering with patients

Patient-provider conversations at the point of care are extremely helpful ways to determine patient health needs within the community. Healthcare providers can use individual interactions to gain improvement insights that will affect themselves as clinicians, affect their care teams, and impact the healthcare organization on the whole.

However, these conversations are also key for gaining insights into community health needs and how certain social structures can support the social determinants of health. Schools, neighborhoods, public health groups, faith-based organizations and churches, and community groups might be effective areas where patients feel comfortable learning more about their health.

“Together, partners can identify strategies and opportunities to address key public health priorities and improve access to health care services in your community,” AHA explained.

Ultimately, these efforts are about finding out how communities can reach patients about public health messaging. Meeting patients where it is most convenient and effective for them is an important aspect of patient outreach. Hospitals can only determine helpful community partners by hearing from patients and community members themselves, AHA concluded.

This toolkit is a part of AHA’s Task Force on Ensuring Access in Vulnerable Communities. Each month, the organization has been releasing toolkits to help tackle various aspects of improving patient care access in both rural areas and vulnerable communities.