By Keith C. Kosel, PhD, MHSA, MBA, Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation.
We’ve all experienced crises in our lives. They may be personal in nature (e.g., involving our interpersonal relationships), organizational (e.g., relating to our employment or retirement income) or nature-made (e.g., floods, tornados, or the COVID-19 pandemic). When crises hit our communities, the impacts can be widespread and far-reaching.
Healthcare providers and community-based organizations (CBOs) are called upon to provide more rapid and extensive care and support to the community than is otherwise the norm. A well-established and highly functioning Connected Community of Care (CCC), as is the case here in Dallas, Texas, can provide a tremendous strategic and tactical advantage over non-connected peers.
Since 2014, the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation (PCCI) has led an effort to bring together several large healthcare systems and a number of regional social-service organizations such as food banks, homeless assistance associations, and transportation service vendors, along with over 100 smaller CBOs (i.e., neighborhood food pantries, crisis centers, utility assistance centers) and area faith-based organizations to form the Dallas CCC.
Over time, civic organizations, such as the Community Council of Greater Dallas, Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS), and select academic institutions have begun to participate in various community-wide projects under the Dallas CCC umbrella. Central to the success of the Dallas CCC are the partnerships that have been formed between the CBOs and a number of local healthcare systems (Parkland Health & Hospital System [Parkland], Baylor Scott & White Health, Children’s Medical Center, Methodist Health System, and Metrocare Services), clinical practices, and other ancillary healthcare providers serving the Dallas metroplex. These partnerships have proved essential in building a truly comprehensive and functional network aimed at improving both the health and well-being of Dallas residents.
Connecting these various entities and forming a two-way communication pathway is an electronic information exchange platform termed Pieces Connect, which allows for real-time, two-way sharing of information pertaining to an individual’s social and healthcare needs, history, and preferences.
The information exchange platform is the glue that holds the physical network together and provides one of the mechanisms to disseminate information from public health and healthcare entities to social service providers in the community. It allows the individual community resident, via the CBO, to become better informed about important health issues, such as routine vaccinations or preventive care, such as social distancing and proper mask usage during a pandemic.
Until recently, the primary mission of the Dallas CCC focused on addressing residents’ social determinants of health (SDOH) issues through providing community resources (e.g., food assistance, housing, transportation) to improve the lives of Dallas County residents. While this mission has become even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of the Dallas CCC has also evolved to include identifying COVID-19 sites within the County and directing community outreach efforts to help stem the rapid spread of the virus.
The Dallas CCC has provided an innovative model of community governance and cooperation to impact the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak. From the first days of the pandemic, PCCI has been working with Parkland and DCHHS to help reliably identify and quantify the geographic location and incidence rates of positive COVID-19 cases within Dallas County. This problem is especially challenging when considering vulnerable populations and the transitory nature of these residents in inner-city communities.
Working with data provided by DCHHS, the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, and CBOs, PCCI built a series of dynamic geo-maps that were able to identify, at the neighborhood and block level, the location of hotspots of positive COVID-19 cases as well as attendant mortality rates. In addition to flagging at-risk patients and populations, the model continues to be used by public health and civic leaders to establish locations for testing sites within the city of Dallas based on COVID-19 incidence and community need.
With the establishment of the hot spotting, the next step was to get that information, along with general infection prevention protocols, in the hands of local CBOs to help raise awareness and slow the spread of the virus.
With the aforementioned information in hand, public health workers have been able to develop targeted communications and tactical strategies to improve containment efforts through community-wide awareness and educational messaging. By connecting local CBOs and faith-based organizations with public health workers and clinicians, the Dallas CCC is facilitating effective contact tracing and the implementation of care plans for high-risk individuals in a more efficient and scalable manner.
The value of the CCC communication network linking healthcare providers and CBOs cannot be underestimated, as it represents a highly effective and efficient mechanism to disseminate leading practice information aimed directly at high-risk populations.
We have seen first-hand that communications delivered to community residents through familiar food pantries, homeless shelters, and places of worship are much more effective than community-wide public information campaigns broadcast via radio or television. This increased effectiveness is based on the fact that many of these at-risk individuals frequent the CBOs on a regular basis for essential services and these individuals know and trust the CBO staff delivering the information.
From one-on-one conversations to displaying infographic posters and take-away educational leaflets, CBOs provide a ready avenue to communicate with at-risk individuals in the communities they serve.
As mentioned, early work in Dallas County is beginning to demonstrate the value of CCC in facilitating contact tracing. In this case, the challenge is not simply identifying the location of positive COVID-19 cases but having the ability to connect those cases to other individuals within the neighborhood or community who may have come in contact with the infected individual, all while working in an environment where individuals frequently move from one location to another.
Having a well-established communication system at the local neighborhood level can be extremely helpful in identifying contacts and potential contacts. It is well-known that many individuals in impoverished, underserved neighborhoods are reluctant to speak with individuals they don’t know or trust, especially if those individuals are affiliated with government agencies, no matter how well-intentioned the agency personnel may be.
Staff members at local faith-based organizations and CBOs frequented by these vulnerable residents are a highly effective resource for identifying inter-personal relationships and connecting with those individuals, which is something that has proved challenging for public health staff when working outside of a CCC environment. In Dallas, CBOs, public health and civic staffers, as well as medical student volunteers have all been partnering to help facilitate the contact tracing process with positive results.
CCC’s can materially improve the health and well-being of a community’s residents, especially in times of crises. The take-away lesson is clear. If you already have a CCC, lean on it to help you through crises impacting your community. If you don’t have a CCC, now is the time to begin the process of establishing one in your community. Even with the challenges that the current pandemic is generating, it is possible to begin building your CCC. Start small and gradually increase the CCC’s scope and scale; don’t be in a rush to grow. The most important thing is to take the plunge and begin the journey!