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Patients losing out as Ohio hospitals and health agencies work in silos

Three medical professionals stand grouped around a doctor as they look at a chart.
A new paper from Ohio researchers revealed public health departments and hospitals work alone in gathering community input, wasting an opportunity to share the work and develop shared plans to promote better health.

Ohio nonprofit hospitals and public health departments disagree on community health needs and fail to collaborate, according to a new paper from Ohio University researchers.

The researchers found over 90% of local health departments identified social determinants of health, the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, and play, as the top needs. Whereas, about 53% of hospitals reported clinical issues such as cancer, heart disease and maternal health as the most important.

Ohio nonprofit hospitals and public health agencies must survey people in their community every three years to qualify for government funding. They are also required to develop plans to address community health needs based on the results.

Corey Cronin, researcher and co-director of the Institute to Advance Health Equity in Ohio University's College of Health Sciences and Professions, said hospitals tend to create plans that complete the required paperwork and pretty much do what they already do.

“What disappoints me some is any time I see kind of a copy-pasted implementation plan," Cronin said.

Hospitals focus on fixing patients after they’re sick, instead of trying to prevent them from getting sick, he said.

The research also revealed public health departments and hospitals work alone in gathering community input, wasting an opportunity to share the work.

"I'm really interested in watching going forward if we see ... hospitals broaden the idea of partners, especially when it comes to addressing social needs of patients, and maybe even addressing needs before the person is a patient," he said.

Cronin said collaboration would save time and help the organizations create better plans.

“So if both organizations can do their plans together, and then do it again together in three years, I think we'll get better outcomes," he said.

The report, published in the June issue of the Health Affairs journal, used coding protocol to analyze all Ohio hospitals, as well as documents from public health departments.

The top identified health needs found by both hospitals and health departments included mental health, substance use and obesity, said Cronin.

A bar graph shows the 17 most common health needs identified by Ohio nonprofit hospitals and county health departments in community health assessments from 2018-2022.
Ohio University
Health Affairs
Mental health, substance use, obesity, chronic disease, and access were the most frequently identified needs across both hospitals and health departments based on Ohio University research analysis.

New policy requirements in Ohio mandate hospitals and public health departments report on community investments and align their efforts with a statewide planning process. The researchers, who have spent six years examining how hospitals influence population health, said their findings provide a baseline for tracking those alignments and identifying areas necessitating greater collaboration.

"Ideally, hospital–health department collaboration will lead to a better allocation of organizational resources and expertise, which may or may not mean that both organizations are targeting the same community needs," the report stated.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.