Cross-Sector Collaboration: A Strategy for Health System Improvement

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Lori Peterson

The development of cross-sector partnerships continues to accelerate as a strategy for health system improvement. Early results are showing that when the medical and non-medical sectors integrate effectively, paying attention to the entire spectrum of health needs for their communities, gaps that exist in the current delivery system can be diminished.

However, there is a fundamental truth about cross-sector partnership: there is no one-size-fits-all model for partnerships.

Since each partnership must be designed purposefully to address a unique set of issues and complexities within a community, there is no universal playbook for partnership design.   After all, when you think about creating healthy communities, the availability of quality health care influences the health of the community but so does the economic circumstances, housing conditions, access to healthy food, and social supports, commonly referred to as the social determinants of health. The interplay of these influencers creates a dynamic, often un-predictable, environment that must be constantly considered when designing and implementing cross-sector partnerships.

For example, some partnerships may be designed to reduce the average length of hospital stays for homeless patients in a community; some may be designed to lower the total cost of care by transitioning patients out of institutionalized settings and back into the community with enhanced community based services; some may be designed to develop a new model of care that assimilates a network of healthcare providers and community-based organizations to strengthen community health initiatives. It comes down to investing in the work required to understand the unique needs for your community and then translating that understanding to activate the cross-sector partnership strategies needed to achieve the health-related outcomes you’re seeking.

While each partnership will take on a distinctive shape there are some core elements that can help fast-track their success: 

Consider the internal motivations that lead to cross-sector partnership as a strategy, and commit first to preparing your own organization to be a capable cross-sector partner.

The leadership needed for effective partnering goes beyond championing a partnership but takes on a very active role through the multiple phases of partnership development. Vital for any partnership endeavor, but especially when it comes to cross-sector partnering is the leaders ability to activate (and sustain) change within their own organization, but also across a network of multiple organizations where the typical hierarchy for getting work done doesn’t exist. Leaders in this role must have appropriate decision-making ability and access to resources within their own organization as well as appropriate influence among the partner organizations to spearhead and organize the partnership from concept to design to implementation to sustainability.  Further, each organization involved in the partnership must do their own internal work to enhance their readiness for partnering. This work includes, for example, understanding the organizational goals and motivations for pursuing a partnership, identifying the skills, resources and capacities required to seek and sustain a partnership, and developing or fulfilling the necessary capacities and gaps found prior to seeking partners.

No one organization can solve every need. Community partners are the foundation to real transformation.

Once you have built a framework for the community partnership which should include the community challenge that will be addressed, the population to serve, and your goals for the partnership, the pursuit for partners can begin.

Understanding what services are required to resolve your target populations needs is a great place to start and then identifying the community providers in the market that fit into those categories. Once your partners have been chosen then you will need to spend time getting to know the partner organizations and facilitating discussion about what’s possible through partnership. Clearly articulating the partnership benefits whether it is shared savings, lower utilization, or simply a healthier community will be the driver to bringing in the right partners. It is important to understand your partners’ incentives and risks, their strategies, objectives, and values, and their philosophy to partnering. This can take time but without properly engaging your partners the program will not perform in the long term.  

Co-design the partnership, carefully considering the needs and challenges of the community.

Never lose sight of what the partnership is trying to achieve. Whether that is ensuring patients’ have the support to get to appointments, or securing housing for your most frequent utilizers. Cross sector partnerships require understanding cultures and decision-making processes, operations and workflows, varying technology systems, industry regulations, and more. Then standardizing joint workflows, communication agreements, accountabilities, and agreeing on data and reporting requirements. But most importantly you must identify and have full support on what success looks like for every partner involved. You are not building a separate silo - you are building a new framework to connect organizations together to better support your community.

Incorporate mechanisms for monitoring, evaluating, and evolving the partnership to ensure long-term sustainability.

Once implemented, it is necessary to continually nurture and redesign the relationships to ensure the partnership achieves the defined objectives and remains viable to do so long-term. Creating appropriate structures- scheduled and frequent face-to-face meetings as an example - to ensure ongoing relating and communicating, especially in the early stages of the partnership will be crucial to ensure organizations remain accountable and engaged. Monitoring performance and outcomes will always be an essential component, not only informing the success of meeting the objectives but also in finding ways in which to evolve the design of the partnership, whether it be through improved communication, more efficient or effective workflows, or a new approach to collecting and understanding the data.

As we continue to develop awareness, understanding and strategies for designing and implementing cross-sector partnerships, we see technology as having a vital role in improving efficiencies and operations, creating more accountability between the partners, and enhancing the likelihood of long-term partnership sustainability. And organizations like Unite Us are helping to advance the effectiveness of cross-sector partnerships through their software solution designed to address connectivity and shared visibility among all partners and real-time tracking and reporting. Click here to learn more.

To learn more about how Unite Us supports health and social service organizations successfully build cross-sector partnerships fill out your information below.  

About Lori Peterson

Lori launched Collaborative Consulting in 2010. With 25 years of experience in the healthcare industry and a background in psychology and organizational development, Lori’s areas of expertise include business development, cross-sector partnership development, multi-stakeholder facilitation, new service design, and change activation and implementation.

About Collaborative Consulting

Collaborative Consulting is a specialist consultancy at the heart of medical-social integration, working with healthcare leaders like you to develop creative, custom solutions that answer the biggest questions facing the industry today, like “How will my organization flourish as the definition of health changes?” And we aren’t ideas-only -- we work together with our clients and partners to take bold, strategic ideas and turn them into progressive, purposeful action.

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