Tackling Complex Public Health Challenges Through Collaboration

A Message from the Director of the Center for Sharing Public Health Services

Communities today face complex health challenges that require creative solutions. Many issues — such as opioid addiction, smoking and obesity — seem to affect low-income communities and minority populations more profoundly, often depriving the most vulnerable people of the opportunity to reach their best health potential, and are not susceptible to simple interventions.

Complex issues such as these require partnerships.

Here at the Center for Sharing Public Health Services, we’ve always focused on partnerships. We have traditionally worked with public health departments on cross-jurisdictional sharing arrangements that allow them to collaborate with each other across governmental boundaries, and we continue to do this work. Our tools and resources help public health departments do more together than they could do alone.

More and more, however, we’ve been asked if the lessons learned by the Center are portable to other types of partnerships involving public health departments. After all, especially complex issues that impact vulnerable populations often require partnerships from many sectors.

While we’ve often suspected that our tools and resources could be applicable to other types of collaborations beyond cross-jurisdictional sharing, we have not tested those assumptions until recently by becoming involved in two different initiatives.

The first — a collaboration with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) — tested some of the Center’s most important tools and modified them to be relevant for collaborations between health departments and health centers. The new tools will launch soon. Watch your email for more details.

The second initiative — which we are co-leading in collaboration with the Public Health National Center for Innovations — is a three-year program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support partnerships among public health, healthcare and social services sectors to improve population health and health equity. This new endeavor (just launched a few months ago) is called the Cross-Sector Innovation Initiative (CSII). CSII will focus in particular on the role that public health can play in cross-sector partnerships.

To inform this new work, we recently completed an environmental scan about cross-sector collaboration, which showed:

  • Not all collaborations are the same. There are different levels of collaboration, with information-sharing representing the basic level of engagement. Higher levels of collaboration often require increasing resources and joint planning between the partnering sectors.
  • Since no two cross-sector collaborations are the same, the roles of different partners within them vary. A few common roles emerged, however, such as convener, funder and data manager.
  • Factors within each individual organization or within the collaboration itself can facilitate or impede a partnership, as can external factors, such as the “melting pot” of national, state and local laws in which partnerships must operate.
  • Cross-sector collaborations can lead to new skills, networks and policies, as well as improved services.

The environmental scan also showed that, while cross-sector collaborations appear to be a promising way to address population health issues, more research is needed. To add to the body of knowledge, the CSII has issued a Call for Proposals (CFP) to identify and support public health, healthcare and social services collaborations that are building stronger, sustainable connections to better meet the goals and needs of the people they serve. Proposals are being accepted now in a two-phase process through the RWJF online system at my.rwjf.org. Brief proposals are due by 3:00 P.M. (ET) September 5. For more information, visit our website.

If you have questions about these programs or other work of the Center, please email us.

— Gianfranco Pezzino, Director