Building a Culture of Health Through Authentic Engagement

August 28, 2017 - (5 min read)

This is a guest post by Eva Marie Stahl and Bridget Clementi.

As a national consumer health advocacy organization, Community Catalyst is in the business of community and consumer engagement. Consumers need to have a say in their health and health care – and with good reason. People who engage in health care decision making are more likely to have better health outcomes, adhere to medical advice and care plans and are more likely to be engaged in their community overall.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s (CHW) vision is that Wisconsin’s kids will be the healthiest in the nation.  And they also recognize that high-quality health care only contributes 10-20% towards health outcomes.  With that in mind, CHW identified partner neighborhoods in which to work with to leverage commy unity assets, including resident voices, and improve health outcomes.

What is community engagement and why does it matter?

Community engagement can be defined in many different ways. As a health advocacy organization, Community Catalyst leans into a public health definition: community engagement is a mutual exchange of ideas and information between community members and the organizations seeking to work in a community. Community engagement is a dynamic and fluid process, requiring a robust and ongoing information exchange between decision makers and community members. Community engagement is an easy term to throw around but is not easily put into practice. True community engagement requires patience, resources and relationship building.

Community members are “engaged” when they play a meaningful role in the deliberations, discussions, decision-making and/or implementation of projects or programs affecting them. Accordingly, organizational and government leaders need to broaden the way they see their responsibilities to include roles as facilitator, supporter, collaborator and convener of consumers and stakeholders. The benefits of community engagement are well-documented—when policies or programs reflect the needs of the community and are shaped by community feedback, they result in better outcomes including increased trust between decision makers and community members.

CHW leveraged those well-documented results when they approached their partner neighborhoods as a convener and facilitator; not a leader.  In fact, we took our role so seriously that we didn’t even vote on neighborhood priorities.  Rather, we supported the priorities community members established by aligning our resources accordingly.  Other local businesses, elected officials and community-based organizations followed this approach.  With the coordination and support of many partners, CHW’s partner neighborhoods have begun to see a reduction in crime, a community of engaged residents and an increase in available resource utilization.

City leaders and elected officials are poised to enhance and deepen community engagement.

So what does community engagement look like?

Community engagement can emerge organically and often begins with a challenge and/or concern from a community member or stakeholder. In Springfield, Massachusetts, parents and their pediatricians were increasingly frustrated by their inability to access specialty eye care for children in the community. A state advocacy coalition, Children’s Vision Massachusetts (CVMA), supported community members by convening a community-wide meeting that included parents, health and human service providers, school staff and nurses and the local public health decision makers. What started as a provider access challenge grew into a much broader and deeper understanding of the families’ barriers to accessing vision screening and treatment. At the convening, CVMA discovered that children were not being screened for vision health in their pediatric medical home, their schools or their early childhood programs – leading to a high number of children needing specialty vision care. In response, Live Well Springfield – Kids and CVMA jumpstarted a three-year partnership to better streamline screening and care to improve children’s vision health. The organizations responded to the community’s concerns by launching EyeSEE including a survey of parents about their vision service access. This resulted in a pilot screening program across five preschools where almost 400 children were screened by the Lions Club District 33Y. For CVMA, the work led to a deeper understanding of statewide provider shortages for children served by Medicaid. The ongoing dialogue across consumers, providers and decision makers with a shared goal of improving children’s health and educational outcomes serves as a model of how communities can lead the way in identifying problems they face and voicing the solutions that they need.

What can local groups and government do together?

Together, government, community organizations and local businesses can accomplish more.  When these groups come together around a common, well-defined priority, duplication can be reduced and impact can be multiplied.  Once trust is established and voices are elevated, the work of many can be fully realized by the impact seen across the community.  Here’s a few specific actions in which government and community groups can engage:

  • Provide accessible opportunities for community members to meaningfully engage in setting city priorities and aligning city resources. For example, if a park or green space is being revitalized, ensure that there are deliberate, accessible opportunities for community members to engage.
  • Government, community-based organizations and community members should jointly be involved with and supportive of community-organizing efforts and both formal and informal neighborhood groups. Meeting separately only demonstrates division not community cohesion.  Convening stakeholders across the community to engage broadly and unite around a specific issue from housing or violence to health care or education.
  • Identify and compensate community members who can serve on task forces and/or other governing or decision-making groups. These community members can bring forward the voices and ideas of their fellow community members.
  • Create a feedback loop between community members and government organizations so that programs can continuously be improved. Local leaders should showcase how they use community feedback in tweaking programs and responding to consumer challenges.

About the authors:

evastahl_headshotEva Marie Stahl
Project Director
Community Catalyst Children’s Health Initiative



bridgeclementi_headshotBridget Clementi
Vice President, Community Health
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin