Collaboration for Community Health helps families thrive

Dr. Shari Nethersole speaks at a community meeting.
Dr. Shari Nethersole speaks at a community meeting.

Justin’s mom grabs him a fast food dinner because the nearest supermarket is two bus rides away. Mia is afraid to play outside because there was a recent shooting in her neighborhood. Janelle’s parents have trouble covering all their expenses each month and are worried the family will be evicted from their apartment. These scenarios are stressful for families in the short term, but they can also have lasting effects on health and well-being. Without access to affordable, fresh foods, stable housing and other supportive resources, families may struggle to provide the environment that both parents and kids need to thrive in the long term. “Good health depends on much more than access to healthcare,” explains Dr. Shari Nethersole, Executive Director for Community Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Housing, education, safety, access to food and physical activity all have a major influence on health and longevity.”

Known as social determinants to health, such factors provide powerful evidence that children’s health begins in their communities — and is governed by a number of forces that extend well beyond a doctor’s appointment. Hospitals can play a crucial role in helping ensure that families have the resources, knowledge and support they need to raise healthy, happy children. To that end, the hospital is launching the 10-year Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health, which will provide funding to support projects and advocacy efforts run by eligible organizations. Here, Dr. Nethersole explains four more things about the Collaboration for Community Health, and what it could mean for children and their families in Boston and across the state.

1) It started with a building. In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health approved Boston Children’s plan to create a new state-of-the-art clinical building in the Longwood Medical Area, as well as to develop new outpatient facilities in Brookline. As part of this process, the hospital is required to invest 5 percent of the money it will spend on these buildings back into the community. “In this case, that presents us with the remarkable opportunity to give back with $53.4 million to our community in ways that that will help foster healthy families,” says Dr. Nethersole.

2) Listening to the community. The Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health stems from a large community health engagement process, in which the hospital asked parents, community partners, leaders and other stakeholders to share their most pressing concerns about the health and social needs of children, families and communities. Based on this feedback, the Collaboration for Community Health will help fund initiatives in four focus areas: behavioral and mental health, stable and affordable housing, support systems for children and families and healthy and safe communities. Within these areas, the hospital will focus on funding multiple strategic initiatives in early childhood development, affordable housing and access to food and physical activity resources.

3) The potential benefit is great. Because Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health doesn’t support the institution itself, its effects will reach far beyond hospital walls. Because healthy children depend on healthy communities, this initiative aims to strengthen families by providing them with resources and support they need to give children a solid foundation for success in life — regardless of whether they are patients at Boston Children’s. Some changes could help solve short-term problems: If a family struggles to pay rent every month, financial counseling and access to more affordable housing could make a big difference, for instance. Other benefits — such as approaches to strengthen efforts in early childhood development and behavioral and mental health— will become apparent over time, and could even decrease the need for hospital visits by improving families’ long-term health.

4) It’s just the beginning. Community organizations will be able to start applying for funding this spring, with additional opportunities in the fall. We’ll be choosing to fund those organizations that best demonstrate that their approaches support the children and families who are most disproportionately affected by health inequities and social determinants of health. “We want all children to have better health and a better chance at success,” says Dr. Nethersole. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

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