Supporting Community Health Through Collective Impact

Mar 22, 2013, 1:01 PM

Organization and business leaders across the country are realizing that every sector needs to join the fight—or at least the conversation—to create healthier places to live. While altruistic motivations play an important role in this movement, a growing body of research also points to the idea that better health is a major driver for a healthier economy.

Recently, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) partnered with The Atlantic to host “A Conversation on Community Health”—a series of events in U.S. cities across the country to explore what it means, and what it takes, to create a healthy community. NewPublicHealth checked in with GSK’s Senior Vice President and Corporate Medical Director, Robert Carr, MD, MPH, FACPM, to get his take on why businesses should care about community health, and why a broad, cross-sector dialogue is a critical next step.

>>Read more on communities that were recognized for innovations that are improving the health and lives of their residents, with the 2013 RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize.

NewPublicHealth: What prompted you and GSK to start thinking about community health?

Dr. Carr: As an HR executive and medical director of a global business, I’m acutely aware that employees are—first and foremost—members of families and communities. The places where they live and the choices made by the people around them profoundly influence the health of our employees. We regularly hear that our employees want to know not only what they can do to lead healthier lives but also what we can do as a company to improve the health of their own community. They want us to dig in and find out what’s needed. Similarly, we recently conducted some research about what Americans are looking for more broadly, and we learned that they want the same thing from GSK.  They want us to do more in their communities.

We heard them loud and clear, and we are digging in, starting with understanding what it means and what it takes to be a healthy community.  Last year we kicked off a program we call “Healthy Communities.”  As part of this attempt to learn more, directly from those on the ground in different American cities, we partnered with The Atlantic for “A Conversation on Community Health.”

NPH: What’s the focus of the “Conversation on Community Health” series?

Dr. Carr: We’re bringing together thought leaders in three cities to find out what they’re doing to build healthier communities. And also, what are the obstacles that, if removed, could accelerate collective action toward helping neighborhoods and communities overcome stubborn challenges to improving the health of their own community?

NPH: Tell us what you heard in the communities you visited.

Dr. Carr: We started with Philadelphia and St. Louis where good things are happening, but where community health status is not as robust as it could be. This is a dilemma common to many American cities where community health is not improving fast enough and, tragically, in many cases is deteriorating even as access to healthcare services improves. This is particularly true for children in many of America’s urban centers.  We’re asking why that is so, and how can we do something about it.

In early February, we visited Denver, the final stop in our community tour. Denver is consistently rated one of the nation’s healthiest cities, yet the city faces looming challenges to issues like increasing rates of obesity, and health disparities among its residents. In every city, we’ve heard that where individuals live has a significant impact on health. Inequalities diverge neighborhood by neighborhood, where education and access to resources – healthy food choices, green space, healthcare, public transportation – often determine the level of engagement citizens have in their own health outcomes.

NPH: What are your next steps to better understand and achieve community health?

Dr. Carr: We convened a panel of experts to discuss what we’ve learned so far through this program, and help us begin to understand where we could have the greatest impact.  It’s clear that we all need better insights, and we must look beyond access to health care for explanations. Our country made a commitment almost 15 years ago to insure every child in America. Yet, despite this commitment, in many cases our children are not healthier. Our prevention strategies are not providing robust impacts.  Nor, for most cities, is there a rational alignment of the health system that remains a foundation for improving the community’s health. In the cities where we’ve met, we are hearing from our employees and health leaders that we must be in true dialogue with each other around real collaboration.

NPH: What impact do you think this dialogue around community health is having?

Dr. Carr: We are even more convinced than when we started that people desire “A Conversation on Community Health.” These conversations are allowing the cities taking part to share what they’re doing and learn from one another. Collective impact can be a conduit for new ideas, strategies, and incentives for building healthier communities across the U.S. Common threads to date are the centrality of public-private collaboration, the power of social determinants of health, and the need to build capacity to act collectively.

We’re on the start of this journey. At GSK, we’re taking the best of what we’re learning in our community conversations and planning to use those insights to shape our approach, to help be a part of the health care solutions our country needs, to give our employees opportunities to engage their own communities more meaningfully, and ultimately achieve something we can all support: a healthier America. 


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.