We are a culture enamored with innovation, with “new, improved” gadgets and solutions. We continually try to build a better mousetrap. Along with our culture’s constant drumbeat for new and improved products and solutions is the quintessentially American concept of the isolated, independent innovator or inventor. Picture a lonely genius hunched over a laboratory table from an old MGM movie, or someone like Steve Jobs single-handedly sparking the computer age from his garage.
But innovation in and of itself – change for change’s sake – shouldn’t be the Holy Grail, particularly when it comes to tackling long-standing, complex, issues that involve the interplay of human, physical and other networks, such as improving community health. And however beloved the image of the solitary problem-solver is in our culture, it’s not the most fruitful approach when pursuing systemic change.
At MeHAF, our experience supporting systemic change in health care in more than a decade of work has shown that what does work, what has a greater chance of long-term success, is a greater commitment to collaborative, networked approaches. With a goal such as improving community health, in all its complexity, MeHAF believes significant and sustainable progress can only come from the collective action of many players – it cannot be the sole responsibility of a single organization or sector.
This networked, collaborative approach is central to our new priority area, Achieving Better Health in Communities and the Health Community Grants program. For MeHAF it is less about the ‘what’ – that is, the specific health issue(s) participating communities choose to work on, or even the individual interventions or steps each community ultimately undertakes to improve health. While the health issues and interventions are important, what is more important is the ‘how’ – how participants approach the solution(s) collectively, how they align all of the individual interventions, and how they engage all community members, including vulnerable populations, in the process of identifying health issues and devising solutions.
Improved health is a journey. Our communities need to have more equitable access to quality health care services. Community members need to have what health policy wonks call ‘coordinated continuums of care’ that allow them to live long, healthy lives in communities of their choice, with access to the appropriate supports and resources when they return from a hospital stay, or to keep them from being admitted in the first place. This is what we’re trying to achieve through all three of our new initiatives – Healthy Communities, Thriving in Place, and Access to Quality Care – and that’s why we’re bringing grantees from all three initiatives together periodically – to better align each initiative’s work toward these common goals.
Our current systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results that they get: inequities in income, education, health, and access to healthy food, to name a few. MeHAF’s Healthy Community pre-planning grants provide an opportunity for communities to examine the way they identify and address health needs through new lenses and approaches. In the end it’s about the new relationships that will be forged and about how existing relationships will be reconfigured. People working together to build solutions and relationships are what we think will drive communities towards better results and improved systems of care, hopefully long past the end of MeHAF funding. That process is the innovation we crave – not a better mousetrap.
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