COVID-19 is challenging. It poses an obvious challenge to the health of communities, but it also poses a challenge for resources and for cross-sector collaborations that involve partners and organizations across health care, public health, and social services working together to solve large-scale problems together.
Successfully addressing the complex challenges that affect community health — such as COVID-19, alongside its economic impacts — requires health care, public health, and social services to work together in new ways.
“Resource limitations, social distancing, urgent public health responsibilities, and health care system strain threaten progress towards the building of sustainable structures across organizations and sectors at a time when they are needed most,” says Karen Minyard, Ph.D., principal investigator of Aligning Systems for Health, led by the Georgia Health Policy Center. “The COVID-19 crisis has both underscored and created a host of problems affecting health disparities and health equity that urgently require attention. Communities are looking for a way to work together in a meaningful, sustainable way — during these unprecedented times and beyond.”
Years of grantmaking, observation, and research led the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWFJ) and other funding entities to seek sustainable ways for collaboration within communities — beyond a one-off grant or program.
At its core is the idea that collaboratives will be more successful if they move toward cross-sector alignment, which involves building sustainable connections across organizations and sectors such as developing a shared purpose, governance structures, financing with incentives and accountability, and shared data and measurement systems. These connections can help public health, healthcare, and social services together improve community well-being and health equity, when combined with external urgency, organizational capacity, and community engagement.
A Theory of Change for Aligning Health Care, Public Health, and Social Services in the Time of COVID-19, recently published by Georgia Health Policy Center researchers in the American Journal of Public Health, highlights how the core components of cross-sector alignment along with the principles of community voice and health equity can be used to design interactions among health care, public health, and social services that better meet the goals and needs of the people and communities they serve in a way that is built to last.
“We recognize that many of the core components of cross-sector alignment may require substantial resources. This does not mean that interested communities should avoid aligning public health, healthcare, and social services. Rather, it calls for building relationships and buy-in, phased planning, and setting priorities that are relevant in the current context,” explains Hilary Heishman, a senior program officer at RWJF, which supports Aligning Systems for Health. “The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the future, and the Cross-Sector Alignment Theory of Change is one tool that can help guide the work of individuals, organizations, and systems to redesign that future.”