[Robert Wood Johnson “Culture of Health” blog]

Enhancing community health: Customers buy produce at the Brownsville Farmers' Market in the Culture of Health Prize-winning city of Brownsville, Texas. Photo: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Enhancing community health: Customers buy produce at the Brownsville Farmers’ Market in the Culture of Health Prize-winning city of Brownsville, Texas. Photo: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Here at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the name of the game is collaboration. Our goal—to build a Culture of Health in which getting and staying healthy is a fundamental societal priority—is an ambitious one, requiring coordinated efforts among everyone in a community, from local businesses to schools to hospitals and government. It also calls for those of us at the Foundation to collaborate with other like-minded groups to address the complex challenges that stand in the way of better health.

That is why we are so pleased to be a partner in the BUILD Health Challenge, a $7.5 million program designed to increase the number and effectiveness of community collaborations to improve health.

Established along with our partners at The Advisory Board Company, the de Beaumont Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation, the BUILD Health Challenge will make two kinds of awards, for planning and for implementation. The awards are aimed at strengthening community partnerships in order to improve the health of low-income neighborhoods in cities with populations greater than 150,000. We are especially interested in seeing collaborative efforts that leverage leadership from public health departments, hospitals and health systems, and community organizations.

There are many other partners that will need to be engaged; who and how will vary depending on each community and their goals. And while the BUILD Health Challenge will focus on urban neighborhoods, we know that this type of collaborative work is happening in communities of all sizes across the nation.

The emphasis on fostering collaborative relationships in communities mirrors the focus of our annual Culture of Health Prize. Last June, we announced the six winners for 2014, all communities that place a high priority on developing innovative partnerships for improving the health of their residents. The prize winners recognize that a host of factors, such as education and job training opportunities, play a part in boosting health outcomes.

Consider prize winner Spokane County, Wash. In 2009, Priority Spokane, a non-profit with members from local businesses, government, community organizations, health care providers, public health leaders, and schools, polled residents about the community’s pressing issues. The most urgent need it uncovered was education. What’s more, a local health department report linked lack of access to quality education to poor health and lower incomes. Improving educational opportunities and raising high school graduation rates could improve overall health, they determined.

To that end, the group spearheaded multiple innovations, from creating a new high school with backing from a local business—with a curriculum related to current and future workforce needs in the region—to a web-based interactive system that enables teachers to monitor attendance and grades, so they can step in before excessive absences get out of hand. The result: Spokane’s high school graduation rate rose to about 80 percent last year compared to less than 60 percent in 2006.

Another winner, Brownsville, Texas, is one of the poorest metro areas in the country, with high levels of diabetes and obesity, even among higher-income residents. In 2001, after researchers from the University of Texas School of Public Health presented alarming health data to local residents, the Community Advisory Board was formed with community, business, health care, and education leaders coming together to address these health issues.

Around the same time, city officials and large employers in the area formed a long-range plan called Imagine Brownsville. Working with the Community Advisory Board, they developed an ambitious strategy for health-promoting initiatives, such as traffic-free Sundays that allow thousands of residents to walk, run, cycle, and enjoy outdoor activities; new bike trails, sidewalks and a complete streets policy that allow residents to be active and safe all week long; supporting “promotoras”—health workers who engage and educate people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to health care; and cultivating community gardens in economically depressed, food-insecure neighborhoods.

Like the Culture of Health Prize, the BUILD Health Challenge is all about encouraging collaboration. It is structured to identify the most promising partnership models, provide resources to accelerate their work, connect them with other innovators, and disseminate best practices.  Planning Awards will offer up to $75,000 to awardees for one year, with the potential for an additional year of funding. Implementation Awards will be up to $250,000, with a two-year duration. Communities can also apply for low-interest loans to support complementary community revitalization efforts.

BUILD, by the way, is an acronym for the core principles of the Challenge:

  • Bold: Novel partnerships that tackle community health challenges in innovative ways.
  • Upstream: Addressing community factors, from affordable housing to access to healthy food, that shape health before any clinical intervention is necessary.
  • Integrated: Collaborative strategies that integrate the capacities and competencies of each partner.
  • Local: A focus on the neighborhoods, census tracts, or zip codes that are experiencing significant obstacles to health.
  • Data-Driven: A commitment to share and use data to define problems, target interventions and provide opportunities for continuous learning and improvement.

Applications are due by 5 p.m. ET, January 16, 2015. You can join us December 2 at 2 p.m. ET or December 4 at 1 p.m. ET for a conversation about the program and application process.  I look forward to seeing the innovative proposals you submit.

You can find out more about the Challenge at http://www.build-health.wp.csldev.com.