Can the Healthcare Industry Make Communities Healthy?

Why would a healthcare system get involved in the issue of affordable housing? Or play a critical role in establishing an affordable, high-quality preschool? That’s exactly what AdventHealth is doing in a partnership with the residents of the Communities of West Lakes in Orlando. They are just one of several healthcare industry partners investing in this neighborhood that houses some of their most frequent customers.

The reasons run deep. Historic disinvestment in the area has created neighborhood pockets of concentrated poverty that are among the poorest in Orange County, Florida. By the early 2000s, a legacy of discrimination followed by the blight of absentee slumlords drove historic crime rates up to about 20 times the national average — only a mile from downtown Orlando. Here, healthcare partners are doing more than serving individual health needs. They are also investing directly in the community itself.

In fact, these hospital resources are true community investments in the form of social impact investments designed to provide critical capital for neighborhood transformation projects addressing housing, education and innovative models for healthcare access solutions. This kind of innovation could serve as a model far beyond Orlando.

In a different approach, CVS Health, which acquired Aetna insurance at the end of 2018, recently announced an initiative called Building Healthier Communities. This five-year, $100 million commitment includes expanded funding for free health and wellness screenings, community clinics grants, partnerships with national chronic disease organizations and community partners, and a focus on reducing opioid addiction and smoking. Make no mistake: the services they are providing are needed, particularly in distressed neighborhoods like those found in Orlando where too many families and children are trapped in a cycle of intergenerational poverty and poor health. Investments like those announced by CVS Health that tackle pressing social needs are made with positive intentions, and this kind of support has made an enormous difference in the lives of many individuals. But what is unclear is whether or not those dollars spent will truly, as they indicate, build healthy communities.

Healthcare providers and insurance companies are well-positioned to identify and treat individuals and their immediate health needs. But as we have seen in Orlando, it is also entirely possible for that industry to lead the way by moving upstream to address the root of health: the social conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

We don’t necessarily mean writing bigger checks; $100 million is a lot of money. We have seen investments of just a fraction of that amount catalyze further investments in support of holistic efforts to solve the underlying causes of poor health. And it isn’t always just about money. Though AdventHealth has made significant financial contributions to the revitalization of the Communities at West Lakes, their most recent gift was one of influence. Their standing as a respected healthcare organization and their relationship with the Bainum Family Foundation helped make the case for a multi-million dollar gift to build and operate an early learning center that will open soon to serve the youngest children from throughout the neighborhood.

Is teaching children how to eat healthy a good investment if their parents have to spend hours on public transit to get to a grocery store that sells fresh fruit and vegetables? Or is it worthwhile to offer blood pressure screenings without addressing important sources of stress such as housing insecurity or unemployment–not to mention the inability to pay for prescription medications after diagnosis?

What if more insurance and healthcare providers decided to lead the way in addressing the social determinants of health — to really transform the communities that need it the most? Investments in housing affordable for people of different means, high-quality early childhood education and schools from the earliest age, and community resources that support health and wellbeing. That’s what we want to see them investing in, and that’s what we’re now beginning to see. Across the country there is a nascent but large-scale movement underway. Leaders include Kaiser Permanente’s $200 million investment in affordable housing, ProMedica’s $45 million investment fund for community development in Toledo, OH, and Dignity Health, now Common Spirit’s, $140 million community investment fund.

We are grateful to partners such as AdventHealth and applaud others like CVS Health for making substantial investments in helping people be healthier. They and other insurance and healthcare providers can leverage their corporate clout, business acumen and substantial investment portfolios to address the root causes of poor health and play a critical role in creating a healthier, more prosperous future for communities across the country and generations to come.

Dr. Douglas P. Jutte, MPH, is Executive Director of the Build Healthy Places Network, a national organization that catalyzes and supports collaboration across the sectors of community development and health.

Carol Naughton has been a leader in comprehensive community revitalization for more than 20 years and is the President of Purpose Built Communities.

To learn more about the Communities of West Lakes, Purpose Built Communities and the intersection of health and community development, check out these videos from our 2018 annual conference.

Groundbreaking of the West Lakes Early Learning Center in Orlando, Fla.