Community networks key to long-term population health

Photo credit: Getty/Olivier Le Moal

Strong community networks may be the key to sustained, long-term population health improvements, according to a new study.

The findings, published in Health Affairs, suggest that preventable death rates may be more than 20 percent lower in communities that offer a variety of interconnected programs targeting the social determinants of health and other population health concerns. The study team followed more than 300 communities over the course of 16 years to track the effectiveness of these community networks.

The lower rate of preventable deaths was still present in data when researchers controlled for a number of socioeconomic, demographic and health resource differences in the communities studied.

"These results give us the clearest picture yet of the health benefits that accrue to communities when they build broad, multi-sector networks to improve population health," Glen Mays, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in announcement of the findings. "It's not simply a matter of implementing widely-recommended activities involving assessment, planning, and improvement--it's about engaging a full range of partners in these activities."

The research suggests that the network is the key element that led to the reduction. Communities studied offered services across the spectrum to monitor health, promote wellness and connect people with needed care, according to the study, but those that had networks to share resources and were jointly invested in population health programs saw the greatest reduction in preventable death rates. Those that relied more on independent or uncoordinated efforts did not see the same games, the researchers found.

“Building strong and durable capabilities for carrying out these foundational activities may be at least as important to population health as are the downstream choices made by communities about which specific interventions and target populations to pursue at a given point in time,” the authors wrote.