Public hospitals in the United States play a key role in urban health. In many metropolitan communities, public hospitals maintain the health care safety net. Most urban public hospitals have evolved to not only provide care for the indigent but also to serve their communities in other ways, including serving as major providers for tertiary services such as trauma and those that support homeland security; serving as the foundation for primary care services; continuing to train a significant number of physician, nurses, and other medical personnel; and providing laboratories for clinical medical research. Federal budget cuts such as those in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, recent state budget deficits, competition for Medicaid Managed Care, and the growth in the number of uninsured have led to a decline in revenues among urban public hospitals.
To be better stewards of scarce resources, public hospitals have moved to reduce inpatient demand by adopting prevention strategies that are aimed at addressing the determinants of health, the complex interactions among social and economic factors, the physical environment, and individual behavior. These factors contribute to health status and offer opportunities to intervene and improve community health. Urban public hospitals, to be successful in the next stage of their evolution, need to learn to manage the “in-betweens”—partnering with governmental and nongovernmental entities to identify and work together on common health and safety issues. If public hospitals engage the community successfully, building trust and establishing new capability and capacity, urban public hospitals will survive, evolve, and continue their tradition of service.