Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities Vice President Kenneth Fawcett, M.D., likens the scope of his organization’s community outreach to the “sun passing from horizon to horizon. We offer support to vulnerable populations through all phases of life.”

The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based health system works with community partners to forge strong beginnings for infants of disadvantaged minority women, bring better care to low-income students in public schools, broaden needy families’ access to healthy foods and wellness programs, and reach underserved chronically ill seniors at home.

Its cutting-edge programs extend deep into west Michigan’s underserved communities, and explains why Spectrum Health will receive the 2016 Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service May 9 at the 2017 AHA Annual Membership Meeting in Washington, D.C. The AHA, its affiliated Health Research & Educational Trust and the Baxter International Foundation sponsor the annual award which recognizes hospitals’ and health systems’ efforts to partner with others to improve the health and wellbeing of their communities.

Programa PuenteSpectrum Health was created in 1997 from the merger of Grand Rapids’ two largest hospitals –  Blodgett and Butterworth. Its Healthier Communities Department, a product of that event, is the engine that drives community health-improvement initiatives in a region covering 13 counties and about 1.5 million people.

Through Healthier Communities, Spectrum Health allocates nearly $7 million to a wide range of programs and services aimed at improving the health status of underserved or disadvantaged residents. A community commitment advisory committee of health care, business and nonprofit groups and schools and government agencies oversees the distribution of the funds to community partners.

From the beginning, Healthier Communities and the advisory committee focused on measurable outcomes, says committee chairman John Butzer, M.D., Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s medical director and director of Michigan State University’s division of rehabilitation medicine in Grand Rapids. “We look for a return on investment and truly improving the health of the community in a measurable way, and using that to continue to improve the process,” he says.      

At the dawning of life – as Fawcett points out – there is Strong Beginnings, a 2016 AHA NOVA Award-winning program that gets vulnerable infants off to a healthier start. The AHA NOVA Award honors hospital-led partnerships that help build healthier communities.

Healthier Communities and seven other community groups formed Strong Beginnings in response to a 2003 Kent County study that found an exceptionally high black infant mortality rate of 22.4 deaths per 1,000 births. It was the highest infant mortality rate of any municipality in the state.    

The program designs curriculum for the specific needs of disadvantaged mothers-to-be and new moms. It addresses issues affecting maternal health, like poverty, unemployment, limited transportation and a lack of affordable housing. Strong Beginnings provides outreach, case management, education, parenting programs and mental health services.

A team of dedicated community health workers has helped the program reduce the black infant mortality rate and low birth-weight rates by half over the past decade. “We are reaching the most vulnerable families and helping them achieve good outcomes,” says program director Peggy Vander Meulen.

A team of 20 community health workers, many of whom are former Strong Beginning participants, go into the most vulnerable neighborhoods to listen to new mothers’ concerns. They educate and encourage women throughout their pregnancies and through the first two years of their infants’ lives. 

“The community health workers are the real stars” of Healthier Communities’ outreach, says Fawcett. “They are the secret sauce that makes this thing work.”

Community health workers also are a key part of the school health advocacy program that helps provide care to nearly 29,000 students in seven local school districts. Services range from providing first aid and administering medications to caring for kids with acute illnesses and managing an expanding portfolio of chronic diseases.

Fawcett says the program is intended to help improve educational outcomes for economically disadvantaged students. “The real outcomes will be measured by what we are doing with graduation rates, what we are doing around workplace readiness, what we are doing about college success and the attainment of jobs,” he says. “That’s the idea of the school-based health services.”

Programs like Programa Puentes are designed to foster a culture of wellness in minority neighborhoods. Programa Puentes offers free heart health screenings to Kent County’s Latino community

2017 Foster Prize

Learn more by visiting www.aha.org/foster.