America’s hospitals take a lot of pride in staying close to their communities. We like to believe we have our fingers on the pulse of the people we serve. Much of what we do to stay in touch is centered on “telling our story,” letting people know what we are doing and why.

Given the challenges facing many of our urban and rural hospitals and communities, it may be a good idea for many of us to spend even more time on the other side of the coin: listening.

One in four hospitals in America is fighting to survive, putting many vulnerable communities at risk of losing their access to local health care services. Rural hospitals may struggle due to their remote location, workforce shortages or a failing local economy. Urban hospitals may face limited funds and resources. And problems like housing instability and food insecurity remain challenges.

Addressing those issues requires those of you serving vulnerable communities to discuss with families, workers, businesses, nurses, doctors, insurance companies, government and others how to ensure continued access to essential health care services. These conversations will be critical as you work collaboratively to identify and address the needs most important in your own community.

To help you jumpstart the conversation, the AHA last week released a toolkit that offers ways to broadly engage stakeholders through community conversation events and the community health needs assessment process; dialog with specific stakeholders such as patients and families, trustees and clinicians; and expand community conversations through social media. The toolkit builds on the AHA task force’s 2016 report on strategies to ensure access to essential health care services in vulnerable communities.

Listening to the voices in your community will give you a clearer understanding of local health issues, the root causes of those issues and the availability of resources and assets to tackle them. You will continue to learn more about how people experience health care – what they like, and what needs to be fixed.

In these challenging times, there is much to be gained from listening that helps hospitals to be better advocates for those they serve. And it just might inspire those we serve to become stronger advocates for us. 

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