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Tips for Engaging Local Businesses as Public Health Partners

Corcoran, Elizabeth MPH, CPH; Locke, Rachel MPH, CPH; Miller, Mark R.

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: September/October 2019 - Volume 25 - Issue 5 - p 518–521
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001074
Getting Practical
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de Beaumont Foundation, Bethesda, Maryland.

Correspondence: Elizabeth Corcoran, MPH, CPH, de Beaumont Foundation, 7501 Wisconsin Ave 1310E, Bethesda, MD 20814 (corcoran@debeaumont.org).

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

The mission of public health is to ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy. Similarly, businesses need healthy, productive workforces and healthy consumers with purchasing abilities in order to thrive. Yet, despite the shared interest, the high level of potential success, and the reliance of health and business on one another to achieve goals, there are relatively few examples of local governmental public health agencies and local businesses or chambers of commerce partnering to advance the health of their communities beyond worksite wellness efforts.

Recognizing this gap, the de Beaumont Foundation and the Bipartisan Policy Center set out to understand the challenges and untapped opportunities to achieving such important collaborations. The purpose of the resulting report, Good Health Is Good Business,1 was to lay out the value proposition for both sectors—governmental public health agencies and businesses—to engage in local collaborations that result in the achievement of goals that are mutually beneficial and that ultimately advance community health. The report summarizes the potential offerings and benefits each sector brings to a partnership to improve community health.

Historically, the interests of governmental public health agencies and the business community have seemed at odds. Governmental public health agencies have often viewed businesses as largely unconcerned about community issues that do not directly affect their bottom line. Similarly, businesses have perceived governmental public health agencies mainly as regulators, as supplementing the delivery of medical services to the poor and disadvantaged, and as being the first line of defense against communicable diseases.

In describing several partnerships, the report identifies the following characteristics for success:

  • Motivated and committed leaders;
  • Equal and complementary participation; and
  • Joint strategic planning to establish common ground.

The most effective partnerships focus on the underlying social and economic determinants of health, rather than on meeting the individual needs of employees or their families. Addressing needs such as stable housing, accessible transportation, and good health on a person-by-person basis is less impactful than policies, systems, and environmental change that address issues for the entire population.

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Beyond the Four Walls

Community health and business success are closely related. Companies depend on communities to provide healthy employees, consumers, and business partners, while communities depend on companies to offer jobs, stability, and opportunities to create wealth. The promotion of health facilitates broader economic growth, and a strong economy is invariably good for revenue growth and profitability. All corporations have a public health impact in these 4 areas2:

  • Consumer health: How organizations affect the safety, integrity, and healthfulness of the products and services they offer to their customers and end consumers.
  • Employee health: How organizations affect the health of their employees through provision of employer-sponsored health insurance, workplace safety and culture, and wellness programs.
  • Community health: How organizations affect the health of the communities in which they operate and do business.
  • Environmental health: How organizations' environmental policies (or lack thereof) affect individual and population health.

Poor community health directly impacts the health of a business's employees, customers, and supply chain partners. Productivity losses related to personal and family health problems are estimated to cost US employers $1685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.3

Conversely, improved community health can lead to a healthier workforce, a more attractive and vibrant community, and a stronger local economy.

The most common intersection between public health leaders and businesses is workplace health promotion programs. These programs are well intended and are designed to improve health and not just treat illness. However, they benefit only employees while they are on site and usually do not extend into the community, so they do not directly benefit employees' family members, friends, neighbors, social networks, schools, playgrounds, restaurants, and other public places that play an integral role in a community's health.

Employee wellness programs have long focused on health screenings, smoking cessation, and dietary changes. But they have grown to include stress reduction, yoga, and other holistic approaches to wellness, and today employee wellness is its own billion-dollar industry. Public health and business often first encounter each other through employee wellness programs, and starting with employee wellness can allow public health professionals to get a foot in the door and later take on more upstream health improvement efforts. But employee wellness programs alone are not sustainable, they are not scalable, and they are not the solution for health issues that affect entire communities.

The next frontier in employee wellness moves beyond the walls of any one business to focus on community health. Businesses and local health departments should work together to improve community conditions that affect all residents—including the businesses' employees, customers, and others.

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Recommendations

A public health leader who is interested in developing a partnership should present a succinct value proposition that summarizes the expertise, resources, products, or services the department brings to the table that can add value to a business's mission. See value propositions for health and business leaders in Tables 1 and 2.

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

Following are recommendations for government public health departments that want to partner successfully with local businesses or chambers of commerce:

  • Develop a strategic map of local partners. Identify companies that are naturally drawn to public health work, such as organizations with robust employee wellness programs; companies that employ a chief health officer or chief medical officer or that have other prominent staff with backgrounds in public health; companies already engaged in community philanthropy or sustainability efforts; and companies with products and services connected to community health that want to enhance their brand. For each target organization and individual, pitches should be crafted to reflect their values.
  • Prepare an “ask.” Craft a persuasive message tailored to the potential business partner that is specific, tied to measurable objectives, data-driven, and illustrates why the entity should care about a proposed public health initiative. Initial asks should center on shared goals and opportunities for impact, rather than funding. You should do this in a way that explains how the given business or coalition of businesses is particularly well-suited to address the issue. When possible, make an appeal to the humanitarian mission of the business, explaining how a successful outcome would support individual, family, and community well-being. In addition to aligning with the organization's stated mission or vision, relevant business metrics should support the community health initiative. Topics such as opiate abuse, poor mental health, shortage of a healthy and skilled workforce, costly diabetes treatment, and high obesity rates are common conversation starters that inspire local health departments and businesses to convene a discussion of common problems and potential solutions. If a business is not yet comfortable tackling a public health issue, it may still be amenable to delivering health-related messages to its employee networks and families.
  • Recruit leaders as initiative champions. When trying to bring disparate groups or individuals together, enlisting passionate leaders can make or break the endeavor. Beyond the requisite skills and experiences necessary to articulate the need for collaboration, this person should be someone whom business and public health leaders regard as a trusted advisor and change agent. The ideal leader would be supported by elected officials, not only positioned at a high enough level within the governmental public health agency's or company's hierarchy to allow him or her to execute on ideas but also exist within a stable, nonpolitical office to ensure that efforts can outlast individual political or executive leadership.
  • Focus on common problems. At face value, many shared values seem like they should be universally accepted and embraced by business and public health alike. However, emotions such as fear (eg, news coverage of the opioid epidemic or reaction to a natural disaster) or immediate needs (eg, an aging or underskilled workforce, urban flight, or erosion of a company's brand) may spark diverse entities into action as they recognize overlapping areas of shared interest. When groups identify common problems and their root causes, businesses and public health officials can skip over a discussion of who is responsible and immediately focus on finding possible solutions.
  • Measure success and impacts. There is a clear need for data, measurement, and metrics that demonstrate the impact of partnerships. Your success in your community can pave the way for successful partnerships for other health departments and businesses. Key measures need to be developed so that they address the short-term and long-term objectives of those involved. Define measures ahead of time and ensure that they resonate with the people and organizations that are critical to initiative success. It may be useful to build a common dashboard that captures key data and displays those data in an illustrative format. Outcomes measures could include community health outcomes, access to care, the availability of recreational facilities and healthy food options, crime rates, local economic and employment trends, and health care costs or cost savings. Because moving the needle on these measures can take years, collaborators should also define interim goals or process measures that can help maintain enthusiasm and momentum.
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References

1. de Beaumont Foundation and Bipartisan Policy Center. Good Health Is Good Business. https://www.debeaumont.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Good-Health-Is-Good-Business.pdf. Published June 2019. Accessed July 8, 2019.
2. Quelch JA, Boudreau EC. Building a Culture of Health: A New Imperative for Business. New York, NY: Springer International Publishing; 2016.
3. Office of the Surgeon General. The Surgeon General's Priorities. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2019. https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/priorities/index.html#econ. Accessed July 8, 2019.
4. Webber A, Mercure S. Improving population health: the business community imperative. Prev Chronic Dis. 2010;7(6):A121. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Improving-Population-Health%3A-The-Business-Community-Webber-Mercure/e940ef063fdee6c9a09d79ea3330da8061f85f20. Accessed July 8, 2019.
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