Google Hangout Convenes Culture of Health Prize Winners to Discuss Lessons Learned in Creating Healthy Communities

Aug 19, 2014, 5:55 PM

Watch the recording of the August 14 Google Hangout where three RWJF Prize winners discuss what it takes to build a Culture of Health.

This past June, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) announced the six winners of its 2014 Culture of Health Prize, which honors communities that place a high priority on health and bring partners together to drive local change. Each community, selected from more than 250 across the nation, received a no-strings-attached $25,000 cash prize in recognition of their accomplishments.  

Last week, RWJF brought together representatives from two of this year’s winners and one from last year in an online discussion, “Building a Culture of Health: What Does it Take?” Each community representative spoke about the barriers they’ve faced, how they overcame them and the role partnerships play in their ongoing success.

The discussion was moderated by Julie Willems Van Dijk, co-director of the RWJF County Health Rankings & Roadmaps and director of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Alisa May, executive director of Priority Spokane and representing 2014 winner Spokane County, Wash., said that as a largely rural community of 210,000 people they’ve placed an emphasis on improving education at all levels. And they took a data-centric approach.

“Priority Spokane—which is a collaboration of community leaders—looked at the data, pulled community members together to talk about the issues that were most important to them, and educational attainment rose to the surface,” said May.

May said the link between education and health is clear, and analyzing the data—much of it available through the Community Indicators Initiative, a sort of report card on detailing expansive metrics — “energized and catalyzed” the county. Among the findings were that babies born to mothers with less than a high school education were 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday. Among other areas, the county has focused on adverse childhood experiences, which can affect brain development; expanding access to and interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields; project-based learning, with a focus on building a workplace development pipeline; and identifying and responding to barriers to college.

“It’s not education for the sake of education—it’s education because it will improve the health of the individual and will ultimately improve the overall health of the economy and the education level of Spokane County,” said May.

The successes so far are clear. In 2006, Spokane public schools—the second largest school district in the state—had a 59 percent graduation rate and one out of every three students were dropping out of high school. By the end of 2013, the graduation rate was up to 79.5 percent. May said the focus now is on encouraging the community to stay the course and not be satisfied with the great strides they’ve already made.

Jennifer Hudson, director of the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition and representing 2014 winner Williamson, W.Va., spoke about her county’s realization that they needed to make health the focal point of any sustainable community plan. This was especially important considering the size of the community. There are approximately 3,000 people living in Williamson and only about 26,000 people in Mingo County overall. She said that when Williamson set about to create a Culture of Health five years ago they emphasized food access issues in terms of healthy eating, as well as active living. Today, in addition to a more active community, Williamson features a farmer’s market and a community garden where everyone can come together.

Another thing that helps set Williamson apart is its Health Innovation Hub, according to Hudson. It provides local entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their ideas about new businesses and healthy enterprises to the community, and introduces them to experts who are able to help them develop their plans.

“We’ve got this next network of entrepreneurs that’s supported by development agencies, and the idea is to link them with investors so that these ideas can grow,” said Hudson.

Representing 2013 winner Cambridge, Mass., Stacey King, director of the Community Health and Wellness Program’s Cambridge Public Health Department, spent much of the discussion speaking about the diversity of the community, which is something that many people might not expect.

“It’s not just Harvard and MIT,” King said. “We have a lot of diversity here that people don’t know about.”

According to King, the children in Cambridge’s public schools come from a diverse immigrant community and speak 60 languages. Many are also low-income residents, so building a Culture of Health in Cambridge is also about making sure that all residents have access to opportunities and resources, and that everyone is participating and working together to make the community a healthy place to live.

She said the community has tapped into its extensive medical resources through the Cambridge Health Alliance, which is a collection of health providers that, all told, serves more than 140,000 patients in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston’s Metro North areas. The alliance is a “pretty unusual system” that offers residents access to great health systems and infrastructure that many communities might not have. It also allows them to open up opportunities to collaborate and share resources. To give just a few examples, public health nurses operate the tuberculosis clinic at Cambridge Hospital; the men’s health league works at the community level to help men of color—who are at higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes—and includes community-based and navigated care; and school nurses are also public health department employees, expanding their access to hospital resources. Essentially, Cambridge has worked to connect everything together in order to build a Culture of Health, according to King.

>>Bonus Content: Watch a video on the 2014 Culture of Health Prize winners.

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