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Getting Practical

Better Communication for Better Partnerships

Locke, Rachel MPH; Miller, Mark BA

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: September/October 2020 - Volume 26 - Issue 5 - p 512-513
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001244
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As local and state governmental public health agencies seek to address the root causes of health inequities and deficiencies in their communities, they must go beyond their own sector to find answers. Community-wide change cannot happen without strong partnerships between public health, business, education, health care, housing, and other sectors. But many public health officials are not at the table for important discussions and decisions that will have a direct impact on the health of their community and its residents. Starting new partnerships starts with new conversations, which means public health professionals need to be better at communicating what public health is, what public health professionals do, and the value of public health.

Communicating the functions and value of public health is challenging even for seasoned practitioners. Professionals are further hindered by a lack of tools and resources that specifically address the barriers to effective communication between public health and other sectors. Despite such complications, public health professionals do want to connect with sectors outside their own. In the most recent Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), 38% of state and local government public health workers identified cross-sector partnerships as an important training need. To open the door to effective partnerships and communication, public health professionals need to understand what matters to other sectors and fill identified needs.

Tools for Improving Communication

The de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute's Health, Medicine and Society Program created Public Health Reaching Across Sectors (PHRASES) to identify and overcome communication gaps between public health and other sectors.

As part of PHRASES, the FrameWorks Institute interviewed public health officials and conducted in-depth research with leaders in 4 other sectors—business, education, health care, and housing. Their findings revealed major differences in perceptions of public health and cross-sector partnerships. Leaders in these sectors had differing views about collaboration, the competencies of public health professionals, and health as a general concept. These gaps in communication undermine cross-sector collaboration and indicate that public health has an opportunity to facilitate better conversations and explain its value to people outside the field.

By examining the cultural models that show how leaders from other sectors view public health and the gaps in communication, the FrameWorks Institute created framing recommendations for public health professionals, which the de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute used to create practical tools. Forming the foundation of the tools are 2 metaphors (the Foundation of Community Health and GPS Navigation) and a value statement (the Value of Investment) that make public health concepts simple for others to understand. These metaphors and value statement were designed and tested specifically to close gaps in understanding between public health experts and professionals in other sectors. In multiple settings and with multiple audiences, they were shown to be effective.

When making new connections with potential partners, public health leaders may be more effective by using 1 or more of these tested approaches in framing their messaging.

Community Health Depends on a Strong Multisector Foundation

The Foundation of Community Health metaphor helps people understand that achieving good health relies on a solid foundation, which includes quality education, safe and affordable housing, employment opportunities, and access to health care. In building the Foundation of Community Health, public health practitioners are not the architects calling the shots; rather, they work with other community leaders to build a strong foundation that supports good health for all.

The metaphor is an effective way to talk about the social determinants of health without using insider jargon. As the public becomes more cognizant of the role of equity in community health and well-being, social determinants are at the forefront of these conversations, although most people do not use that term. Describing the conditions that influence health and well-being as the foundations of good community health is more likely to resonate with people outside public health.

Public Health Works Like GPS Navigation

Just as GPS helps people visualize and navigate complex terrain, public health professionals draw on a wealth of data to chart out routes for where their community wants to be. The GPS Navigation metaphor illustrates how public health uses data from a range of sources to help guide decisions and improve community health. When using this metaphor, it is important to note that public health is not in the driver's seat, nor is it giving directions. Instead, public health can help partners map out an effective route to success when addressing their own challenges. With plenty of data-driven recommendations at its disposal, public health processes the input from multiple sectors and offers numerous options for getting from point A to point B. Along the way, public health keeps these sectors informed of potential roadblocks, shortcuts, and other considerations that may alter the course.

Public Health Is a Smart Investment

Public health professionals work with other sectors to save money in the short term when possible and make wise long-term investments to support community health, increase efficiency, and reduce unnecessary costs. Sectors such as business, education, health care, and housing all need to consider both short- and long-term organizational goals. Public health professionals can help other sectors identify opportunities to reduce costs and inefficiencies while also promoting community health. Showing that cross-sector collaboration is mutually beneficial makes this value statement particularly useful in building enthusiasm for nontraditional partnerships.

Details are critical when explaining the Value of Investment. Public health practitioners can make their point more effectively by offering a realistic timeline for the return on investment and presenting a dollar figure when possible. When these factors are present, the Value of Investment statement helps public health practitioners tell compelling success stories about cross-sector collaboration.

The PHRASES tools can serve as a useful starting point for public health professionals seeking to connect with the many sectors that influence the health of their communities. Equipped with the tools to engage in productive discussions that lead to effective partnerships, public health practitioners can engage with other sectors to lay the groundwork for improving health for all.

For more information, visit PHRASES.org.

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