By: Beth Blevins
Bringing people together to learn from one another is the goal of collaboration—a goal that’s being achieved in Rural Health Summits held across Vermont.
At the request of the Vermont State Office of Rural Health and Primary Care (VT SORH/PC), leaders from rural hospitals and local public health district offices have co-convened the Rural Health Summits to explore better ways of sharing resources, information, and priorities.
“The summits give us an opportunity to get on the ground in local communities and talk with folks who are doing the actual work of rural health,” said John Olson, VT SORH/PC Chief. “We hear about their challenges, their successes, and how we can identify opportunities for collaboration.”
The two-hour summits are hosted at local hospitals and involve 20 to 40 representatives of health and social service agencies in the county or hospital service area, Olson said. “They usually take place during the standing meeting time of the local Community Health Team or similar community-wide health service coordination group, and involve additional partners,” Olson said.
Those partners have included hospital CEOs, CFOs, and CMOs; Community Health Team members including primary care practices, case managers, and social services like housing, food banks, transportation, aging, etc.; and, other health providers including EMS, home health and long-term care agencies, FQHCs, RHCs, and Free Clinics, Olson said.
The core of each summit is the hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), focusing on its process, work plan, and progress, Olson said. But attention is also given to public health topics like population health, and to sharing information on rural health resources from state, federal, and national partners. After the formal meeting, there are small group discussions with hospital leaders and, if times permits, individual meetings and tours of the hospital or local primary care practices, Olson said.
Additionally, a shared lunch with local partners allows for more informal discussions and networking. At one such luncheon, Olson said, local leaders were able to discuss how they could work together to resolve the problem of increased demand for mental health services in the local emergency department (ED). “The CEOs of the FQHC and mental health agency talked about the bottleneck between the hospital’s ED and the State psychiatric hospital with empty beds,” he explained. “They were able to identify certain policies that prevented the use of short-term beds and services at the local mental health agency, which might be resolved by legislative action.”
Since August 2015, two to three summits have been held each year, with plans for them to continue, Olson said. “We have eight CAHs and five mid-size rural hospitals, and we plan to do three to four summits each year,” he said. “We have prioritized the locations by turnover in hospital CEOs and/or District Directors, so we can introduce ourselves and resources to new leadership. The only expense is our time and our mileage, which we pay for using a combination of Flex and SORH money.”
“For many local partners,” Olson said, “these summits are the first time they have heard about CHNAs or resources available from the State and HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration). We definitely hope that relationships between local partners and state partners will be strengthened, and that new collaborations will be formed.” Anecdotally, Olson said, the summits have been successful, but the Office plans to implement an evaluation process for them in the coming months.
While the summits provide a networking opportunity for local participants, Olson said, they also offer benefits for those who attend from Vermont State Department of Health offices. “My colleagues from the Central Office have enjoyed the opportunity to be in local communities and learn how our programs work together to impact them,” Olson said. “We get to meet leaders of many local healthcare and social service providers, as well as make better connections between programs at the state and local levels.”
The collaboration often begins before the meetings even start. “We have great conversations in the car ride there, and typically meet for coffee before we start the day to see what we can get out of this and what we can learn from each other,” he said. “It gives us an additional opportunity to collaborate across programs and with our local public health colleagues.”
Does your SORH have a “Promising Practice”? We’re interested in the innovative, effective and valuable work that SORHs are doing. Contact Ashley Muninger at to set up a short email or phone interview in which you can tell your story.
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My Three Goals for 2015:
What is on your desk right now that you want/need to read?
Too many things. Research articles, newsletters, reports, etc.
What do you do when you are not working?
I serve as a resident representative on the board of Champlain Housing Trust to develop and support affordable housing for northwestern Vermont, and chair the (housing) Cooperative Advisory Committee with representatives of 5 local housing cooperatives. Previously I was our coop’s treasurer for about 5 years. I also have volunteered and supported our regional performing arts center for the past 15 years.
If you weren’t doing this, you would be…?
Arranging multi-stakeholder meetings in each of our hospital service areas this summer and fall.
What inspires you and excites you most about working for a SORH?
Connecting people and organizations to information, peers, solutions or other resources.
What is the biggest challenge facing SORH leaders today?
Thinking, understanding and sharing info on the many facets of health care today – from the general to the specific of finances, clinical services, technology, reform, workforce, population health, insurance, etc.
What is one characteristic that you believe every SORH leader should possess?
Inclusiveness. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle to improve community health. Whether you’re a clinician, administrator, board member, staff, technician, funder, owner or patient of a hospital, clinic, or community member, you have a vested interest in seeing that your local health system(s) work well together by share information, resources and vision for a healthy, vibrant community.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a SORH leader?
Meeting with my peers when I can; interacting with health care leaders in my hospitals, clinics, government agencies, etc.
How did you get to where you are now? (What positions, schooling, bumps along the road, etc., led you here?)
My first job in public health was HIV prevention in four counties in Vermont, 3 were rural, including outreach, education and training for high schools, colleges and community groups. While pursuing a Masters in Education, I worked part time as a project manager, taught medical students and co-facilitated domestic violence intervention groups. I directed Vermont’s comprehensive cancer control program for 6 years, then switched over to Rural Health and Primary Care in 2010.
What skill sets do you think SORH staff need—and how did you achieve them? (And what skill sets are you looking to improve or expand upon next year?)
Problem-solving, coalition building, communications, leadership and resourcefulness.
How much do you unplug from the office? What do you do to unplug (and unwind)?
I connect with friends after work most evenings. I play volleyball regularly, swim in Lake Champlain when I can, and work out periodically. I explore cities when I travel for work or leisure.
What are three great things about rural health in your state? What are the current challenges?
Sort of. Informally; 2 years ago, we updated our existing Rural Health Plan.
It really is driven by Federal and State funding streams and requirements.
As an organization gets larger there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?
I try to think and talk about the purpose of the program, sub-grant, report or activity. How does this activity or relationship meet the needs of one elderly rural resident who will access any number of health care providers in multiple organizations in this community or far away this month or year?
What are three (life or work) lessons you would share?
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a SORH leader? Maybe some one who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
Several of my predecessors. I had a chance to work beside them and with them before I joined the SORH/PCO. I learned from their energy, generosity, flexibility and dedication to residents and health care providers in rural areas.
Are there any programs in your SORH that you think might make a good candidate for a Promising Practice article?
Possibly some of our collaborations: