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Coalition Targets Root Causes of Health Disparities

February 15, 2017

The notion that healthcare needs are human needs is gaining ground within the healthcare sector.  So is the view of hospitals as important economic anchors that must address these human factors as well as the medical needs of the communities they serve, because the two sets of needs are inextricably linked.

A chief catalyst for this broadened view of healthcare and hospitals is the Root Cause Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 by the AARP Foundation and ProMedica Health System that joins healthcare organizations with grassroots outreach groups, universities, food banks, policymakers and others in tackling health disparities by focusing on the social drivers of health.  These social factors, including hunger, social isolation and problems related to housing, jobs, education and transportation, have contributed to a nationwide epidemic of preventable chronic health conditions.  The Coalition notes on its website that hunger costs the U.S. healthcare system $130.5 billion annually and that 23 percent of chronically ill individuals underuse medication due to medication costs.

Root Cause Coalition members include the American Hospital Association (AHA), the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, Humana, Feeding America, Loma Linda University Health, University Hospitals of Cleveland, Connecticut Mental Health Center, Ascension, Dignity Health, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association and several others.

“Poverty is the ultimate root cause,” Linda Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, said at the Root Cause Coalition’s first annual National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in Chicago in December.  “Poverty is a racial, LGBT, ethnic, rural and urban problem.  Ultimately, it is an American problem,” she said.

Recognizing that “no one sector can address the full breadth of the social determinants ravaging the health of our people,” the Root Cause Coalition brings diverse groups together to share best practices, engage in collaborative projects, and support research and policy to improve health and well-being.  The organization is “committed to harnessing the leadership power of healthcare and community organizations to launch strategies that will create positive change, improve individual health and well-being, and deliver sustainable results for our communities and nation.  To that end, we employ a synergistic partnership with our members and encourage them to be active and engaged in fulfilling our mission. We believe the combined perspective, passion and knowledge of our members is what creates a robust organization capable of amazing change.” 

Coalition members:

  • Work collaboratively to develop effective strategies to reduce food insecurity and lessen its harmful effects in communities.
  • Participate in research to identify gaps and best practices that can be implemented in member communities.
  • Advocate for policies that support community benefit, prevention and improved health outcomes due to hunger and other social factors.
  • Participate in and lead educational sessions, webinars, conferences and advisory committees to spread awareness of proven strategies for improving community health outcomes.
  • Adapt successful programs and tools to address specific community health and prevention needs in acute care settings, clinics and with community partners.

“The key to achieving our vision of healthy communities means working outside the four walls of our hospitals,” said Rick Pollack, president of the AHA, at the National Summit.  “By working together, we can build a future where hospitals are as much aligned with providing health as curing illness.”  In order to achieve that goal, hospitals must move from episodic care to continuous patient engagement, while continuing to fulfill their traditional role of providing access and immediate care wherever it is needed, he said.

Though the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is uncertain, Pollack believes the ACA’s goals to reform care delivery and improve clinical quality will endure regardless of what happens on the legislative front.  “It’s important to keep in mind all of the things that were launched with the ACA, which have to go on because they’re the right things to do,” he said.

The Root Cause Coalition has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a research initiative to drive public policy development and programs at the federal, state, community and institutional levels to tackle hunger and improve health among older Americans.  Focused on adults aged 50 and older, the research will assess the health and economic burden of food insecurity and chronic illness on the healthcare system, evaluate and highlight promising strategies for addressing these problems, and develop tools for health leaders, including how to include food security in the community needs assessments non-profit hospitals are required to perform every three years.

The Root Cause Coalition also offers a data repository that serves as a clearinghouse for information on the social determinants of health.  Topics range from childhood obesity, crime exposure, education quality and health literacy to housing quality, residential segregation, toxic substances exposure and transportation.  White papers are also available on integrated care, housing and health and community collaboration.

In January, the Root Cause Coalition held a webinar to prepare organizations for effective advocacy in the face of anticipated policy changes with the current Congress and Administration.  Led by Rachel Wenger, director of public policy and community advocacy for Dignity Health, and Jason Gromley, vice president of operations for the Root Cause Coalition, the webinar is available here

“Addressing the social determinants of care across the country has to be approached ‘as a national committee,’” said Wenger.  “We can’t operate in a business-as-usual fashion because nothing is as usual.  Healthcare is a very sought-after voice and we can use our voice to create policy that addresses all barriers to health.”

The Root Cause Coalition will hold its second annual National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health October 9-10, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Proposals are being solicited until March 8, 2017 on successful initiatives, best practices, partnerships and other related topics.

For more information on membership, visit the organization’s website.

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