Healthy Neighbors, Healthy You: Kaiser Permanente Invests $14.2 Million to Support Community Health

6155926_8ff5af60b4_bSecond quarter grants will help over 500 community organizations across America, highlighting the power of social capital

In his 1974 book, A History of Public Health in New York City, 1866-1966, historian John Duffy posited that the infant milk stations established in New York City in 1901 marked the beginning of the community health center (CHC) in the United States. With the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) reporting the total number of medically disenfranchised people at around 60 million, such centers are more vital than ever to protect the public health.

But CHCs provide more than just medical care; they help keep health care costs down for everyone. "Community health centers are well placed to help the nation achieve... dual goals set out at the beginning of the health care debate—expand coverage for nearly all Americans and rein in out of control health care costs," argues Ellen-Marie Whelan, the Associate Director of Health Policy and Senior Health Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

KAISER PERMANENTE: INVESTING IN HEALTHY COMMUNITIES

Now, over 500 community organizations across the United States—and the thousands of people that they serve—are getting a well-deserved boost, with health care provider Kaiser Permanente's recent announcement of $14.2 million in grant funding during the second quarter of 2012. The grants were awarded to support distinct areas, such as the promotion of healthy communities, expanding health care access and knowledge dissemination.

"Good health starts by building healthy communities," said Raymond J. Baxter, senior vice president of Community Benefit, Research and Healthy Policy at Kaiser. "That's precisely why we partner closely with local organizations whose work touches the critical health needs in the communities where our members, physicians and employees live and work."

In Northern California, for example, they are investing $660,000 in 11 community clinics across the region to support community knowledge of and access to a variety of important public resources, such as food stamps, homeless and domestic violence shelters, job training programs and the Women, Infants and Children program.

Family Health Centers of San Diego, a community health center organization that provides medical, dental and mental health care to uninsured, low-income and medically underserved patients, was awarded a $45,000 grant to support the care coordination for a primary care medical home.

"These grants support efforts that are underway right now as well as initiatives to improve the health of communities longer term," said Baxter. But good public health isn't just about keeping individuals healthy. Also crucial is community development, education and integration. And other grants demonstrate that Kaiser Permanente is well aware of this fact as well.

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN COMMUNITY AND HEALTH

In 1897, Emile Durkheim conducted one of the earliest studies on the effect of community social forces on individual health. In Le Suicide, a now classic case study, the French sociologist showed that suicide rates varied greatly among different communities, rates that stayed relatively the same over time—even when individuals entered or left those social groups. He argued that, contrary to conventional thinking, suicide was not necessarily solely caused by the emotional state of an individual, but had connections to the community-at-large.

"Durkheim's research led him to conclude that the major factor affecting suicide rates was the degree of social integration of groups," write S. Leonard Syme and Miranda L. Ritterman of the School of Public Health University of California, Berkeley, in their paper, The Importance of Community Development For Health and Well-Being. "Today we use terms such as 'social capital' to refer to this concept that Durkheim introduced over a hundred years ago."

Consequently, investments made to support community health—insofar as they promote community-driven cooperation between individuals and groups—help to drives the growth of social capital and thus an increase in collective economic benefits.

HAPPY TOWN: PLAYGROUNDS, MARKETS AND GARDENS

The social capital mechanism can be seen in Kaiser Permanente's grant of $69,215 to the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network for its Food & Play Program, which addresses the growing obesity epidemic among children between the ages of two and five, through promoting both policy and community changes. While not directly providing health care, the program's various initiatives include access to quality playgrounds for all children, creating healthier pre-school environments within the public school system, increasing the number of farmers markets, expanding community gardens and food assistance programs and promoting business practices that support breastfeeding.

The strong connection between an individual's well-being and the community in which they live is what makes community health so critical to the overall health of the public. "Few topics are more important to health than community development," argue Syme and Ritterman, noting that "for maximum benefit, physical improvements must be accompanied by improvements in the social fabric of the community." In other words, there is a direct connection not only between healthy people and access to health care, but also healthy people and the number of farmers markets, playgrounds and food stamp programs in their communities.

Health care providers around the world, take note: Because of the ripple effects that building healthier communities has on overall public health, grants like Kaiser Permanente's are excellent examples of "sustainable finance." And while not everyone uses community health centers, helping those at the bottom of the economic ladder has a positive upstream effect. As Whelan rightly points out, "These centers boast strong primary care capabilities that decrease health care costs overall." We all stand to gain by having healthy neighbors.

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NOTES

John Duffy. A History of Public Health in New York City, 1866-1966. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1968.
National Association of Community Health Centers. America Needs More Primary Care Doctors. October 21, 2009. Accessed August 2, 2012.
Ellen-Marie Whelan. The Importance of Community Health Centers: Engines of Economic Activity and Job Creation. Center for American Progress. August 9, 2010. Accessed August 27, 2012.
Kaiser Permanente. Community Organizations Receive $14.2 Million in Grants from Kaiser Permanente. August 9, 2012. Accessed August 26, 2012.
Ibid.
S. Leonard Syme and Miranda L. Ritterman. The Importance of Community Development For Health and Well-Being. School of Public Health University of California, Berkeley. August 27, 2012.
Ibid., 4.
Ibid., 3.

image credit: Robert Terrell (Flickr Creative Commons)

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