Rural communities are characterized by community strength and expertise on their unique needs. Rural Forward NC (RFNC) taps into that strength by bringing together rural health leaders and in some cases, highlighting leadership and unidentified community assets. The program, funded by Kate B Reynolds Charitable Trust and their Healthy Places NC initiative, supports counties in central and eastern North Carolina participating in the Initiative. Most importantly the team works with the community to expose opportunities for collaboration and leveraging community assets. Community organizations are critical to the identification of workforce “boundary spanners”, individuals and organizations that provide critical connections to healthcare. These organizations can be the link between traditional healthcare setting and community self-care.
Lack of transportation, few physicians, and minimal employment opportunities make it hard for rural residents to maintain their health. Calvin Allen, Director of RFNC says, “Despite these challenges, small towns have a unique asset to build upon. People in rural communities often know each other and have established networks.” Value-based care and the opportunity for community-based workers to actively participate in the health of their community recognizes the unique knowledge and influence they contribute, something the traditional healthcare system needs to successfully improve population health.
Currently, Rural Forward NC is working in Halifax County with leaders creating a community health home. The work is part of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield NC Foundation’s Community Health Home initiative. Sharing data across department lines is one of the tactics that leaders in Halifax County are using to address the health of their populations, identify unmet need and create opportunities for the broader community to collaborate
During a three-hour meeting in the Halifax Regional Medical Center facilitated by the RFNC team in June, health professionals met to hash out ideas on how to get Halifax County healthier. Representatives from the community health center, public health department and hospital attended the meeting, as well as primary care physicians. They discussed further coordination to prevent the replication of services, the idea of a mobile care unit to reach frequent or repeat EMS callers, and a new data-sharing tool that the coalition has developed.
Data-sharing is an extremely useful way for communities to work together. “When you develop an intervention, data can tell you where the greatest need is, and where the greatest potentials are,” says Allen. “The Halifax County team discovered a family with multiple visits to the health clinic and the emergency room for respiration problems, but had no idea until they combined data that one of the parents was a smoker.” Information sharing across departments changes the intervention from treating symptoms to addressing the root cause in the household. This innovation helps departments streamline their efforts so that services aren’t replicated, which makes greater economic sense, and more importantly, patients aren’t receiving disjointed care.
Despite the benefits, sharing data like this can be very touchy. ” A level of trust has to be established to cross long-held boundaries,” says Allen. “Our local colleagues are doing an amazing job of respecting privacy and also pooling data across department lines. Fortunately, communities like Halifax County have come a long way in establishing that trust.”
In a health climate that is slowly shifting to value-based care, rural communities, especially the health care workforce, need to work even harder to collaborate around the health of the population as a whole. “It takes creative ideas, development, good case-management, and co-operation,” says Allen, “We are seeing the value of crossing department lines when health leaders look beyond their departments and take a collective view of their community.”