'We can't just sit back in our clinics': How Memorial Hermann shapes its community health initiatives

Memorial Hermann Health System's commitment to community health has roots going back decades. But these days, this commitment is more than a persistent focus; it's branded into the Houston-based organization's identity, CEO David Callender, MD, told Becker's

"Our mission statement says that we're here to improve health. It doesn't say anything about healthcare, although we certainly understand we need to deliver great healthcare and make it accessible to all. It goes beyond that," Dr. Callender said. 

He also cited Memorial Hermann's vision of "creating healthier communities."

The vision touches on the 17-hospital health system's history of serving greater Houston, but "also demonstrates we're in this for the long term," Dr. Callender said. "If we're truly going to improve health and well-being in Houston, it takes time. We have to be flexible. We have to be committed to get beyond the walls of our hospitals and clinics and into the community in close contact with all of the people who make up greater Houston. 

"And in the process, we need to deal with the diversity that's present in Houston and Greater Houston. We're one of the most diverse urban areas in the country. So, I'd say it's our philosophy. It's related to our history and our commitment to serve our community as a community-owned health system."

Memorial Hermann recently earned the American Hospital Association's Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service because of this commitment to community health and developing innovative partnerships with community organizations to address social determinants of health.

The health system's approach is built on the foundation of four pillars: access to healthcare, emotional well-being, food as health, and exercise is medicine.

Among its initiatives is a nurse health line. The health line, which has been in operation since 2014, provides a bilingual staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to answer calls, assess callers' primary health concerns and direct them to appropriate care, free of charge, the AHA said. The group said the health line also provides education and resources to support care plans and receives 170,000 calls annually. 

Other initiatives include StepHEALTHY, which promotes physical activity, including through walking groups; health centers that provide medical, mental health, dental, nutritional, navigation and exercise programming to eligible children and adolescents in area schools; and three community resource centers that offer help with access to healthcare, health education and social services.

Additionally, Memorial Hermann receives referrals to its mental health crisis clinics, which connect people to outpatient behavioral healthcare.

Dr. Callender said a number of the programs are aimed at creating access to healthcare and building trust through leveraging connections in the community.

The mental health clinics specifically are "to help people in crisis. They provide immediate support for them, provide early treatment, then get them into a relationship with an established provider," he said. 

Dr. Callender also pointed to the importance of people having a healthy supply of food.

Memorial Hermann has "a marvelous collaboration with the Houston Food Bank," he said. "We have in our community resource centers food that's available associated with our work with the food bank. And then along with that, we have nutrition education programs that help people make selections that are healthier for themselves and their family members."

Regarding the health system's efforts around exercise, such as walking programs, he said that's "not only about activity and getting out and trying to have some form of regular exercise to help maintain our bodies in best working condition and help maintain good mental health, but also about working through the parks. We have a lot of efforts in public parks and neighborhoods around the city, particularly in those neighborhoods that are challenged by some of the social determinants. 

"We found by listening that people want to use the parks in their neighborhoods as gathering places to come together, to talk, to have safe places for their children to play, to have playgrounds and fields where the children can play on equipment or they can get together and play or they can have organized sporting activities, soccer and basketball."

Moving forward, the health system's goal is to continue to respond to concerns that are expressed by community members and monitor the feedback to adjust plans accordingly. Memorial Hermann also hopes to expand the existing programs and attract more partners. 

Dr. Callender's takeaway for his peers: "A number of health systems have already determined that we can't just sit back in our clinics and within our hospitals and wait for people to come to us. If we're truly going to improve health, we need to get out in the community. We need to broadly engage. We need to look at the disparities that exist across different neighborhoods and across different populations and do more to address those. We're seeing health systems, health leaders, all kinds of healthcare providers across the country act on this realization and move forward. And so 'thank you' to everybody who's engaged. And let's all try to work more closely together, engage more partners and work to make a difference in terms of improving health all across the country."

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