By Daniel Stein

As daily life changes for everyone, we are all learning how to function in different, more-flexible ways. It is a learning exercise that feels – and often is – both individual and isolating. There’s an additional way to look at the lessons of the coronavirus crisis, however, and the title of last Friday’s (3/27/20) NIC webinar/discussion describes it: “Collaborating to Deal with Today – While Preparing for Tomorrow.”

In a nutshell, the 90-plus participants in our weekly online conversation focused on how organizations – governmental, commercial and nonprofit – can more-effectively work together to address the pandemic’s devastating impact. At least as importantly, we also looked forward, brainstorming ideas for how we can collaborate to establish policies and practices that put a greater emphasis on prevention, early detection and other “upstream” approaches to deal with future public health emergencies.

One point of consensus was that greater integration of the Social Determinants of Health and Well-Being (SDOH) will significantly contribute to achievable, tangible progress on all counts. That belief – make that understanding – is also at the heart of Stewards of Change Institute’s (SOCI) new National Policy Action Agenda, a multifaceted initiative that will shape systems-change recommendations throughout this year and then work to instigate their implementation into the future.

Examples of the other concepts explored during last Friday’s conversation include:

  • Karen Smith, former Director of California’s Department of Public Health and a leader of SOCI’s Action Agenda initiative, explained that building resilience at the community level is vital. Doing so, she added necessitates a better understanding and integration of SDOH.
  • Robert Tagalicod, Senior Advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should create a health threat data network, leveraging and connecting networks that are already in place.
  • Uma Ahluwalia, a Principal with Health Management Associates and a former Maryland county HHS Director, focused on the toll of the pandemic on child welfare and on the role of technology, pointing out that telemedicine is mature in healthcare but not human services.
  • Pierre-Gerlier Forest, Director of Calgary University’s School of Public Policy, said the wall between health and human services in the U.S. fuels socioeconomic inequality, disparate health-related outcomes, and inadequate information-sharing that could promote progress.

We conducted two informal polls during the course of last week’s webinar to gauge the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the participants’ professional lives. Over half said it has already had a moderate to severe impact, and even more said the harm to their work would be even more severe if the crisis continues for several months. That was the unsurprising but disheartening bad news.

The more potentially positive news was that participants agreed this public health crisis may also be creating a climate in which individuals and organizations will be more amenable to improving interoperability, information-sharing and incorporation of SDOH. Another bright light, many added, is that they have been able to partner with local public health agencies to support the coronavirus response and have implemented disaster-management plans that helped move a majority of state employees to work from home and continue to manage all of their programs remotely.

Additional issues were discussed in the context of collaboration, as well as whether SOCI’s current Proof of Concept initiative – called Project Unify – could contribute to solutions. The questions included:

  • Since it is believed that the coronavirus may become seasonal, how can data from the pandemic be used to prepare for future health crises or to inform when people can safely return to work?
  • How can we prepare for the possibility that vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, will be at greater risk if the C-19 crisis continues during natural disasters such as wildfires?
  • What improvements can be made to telehealth so this technology is available to more people (such as in rural areas) as well as for more purposes, including mental health and child welfare?
  • Probably most importantly, even as we combat the pandemic, how do we learn the vital lessons we need – relating to data and capabilities – to better-address the next disaster?

It’s important to keep the conversation going and to support each other during this crisis. Please share your thoughts, questions and/or ideas with us by writing to, by joining in our upcoming webinars, or by participating in one of our initiatives. Most importantly, please stay safe.

Learn more about the national symposium, webinar series, publications, NIC Collaboration Hub workgroups and other activities that compose our Action Plan, as well as how you can get involved, in this blog and this webinar. NIC is a project of SOCI.

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