Baylor Scott & White Health seeks to improve medical care for the underserved by Connecting the Dots

by David Buice, Special Contributor | March 5, 2020

Inspiration often comes at the most unexpected times. Just ask Niki Shah, Vice President of Community Health & Care Redesign for Baylor Scott & White Health. Dedicated to providing whole-person care and making these resources available to the widest possible swath of our population, including those who rarely receive professional medical care, Shah once found herself driving hundreds of miles across North and Central Texas from one meeting to another.

One day, as she was returning from one of these sessions in Waco, Shah was contemplating the disconnection and redundancies between health, faith-based, social, governmental and other agencies when inspiration struck. She asked herself: “Why don’t we just bring these organizations together and talk?”

It was from this moment of insight that Connecting the Dots was born. This annual, full-day symposium convenes community agencies, faith-based organizations, governmental entities and other health systems as well as community health workers, nurses, social workers, case management staff and other health professionals who help refer and connect patients to community resources across Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties.

Confronting the social determinants of healthcare

For individuals born into poverty, growing up with limited opportunities for education and employment and living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are among the social determinants of healthcare. Much research has shown that factors such as limited education, racial segregation, the absence of social support systems and poverty account for over a third of the total deaths in the U.S. each year.

Long before Shah thought of creating a healthcare symposium to address these issues, Baylor Scott & White Health had already established a number of initiatives to assist the medically underserved, both inside and outside the hospital. One such initiative was the use of community health workers (CHWs), a program started in 2005. The CHW teams have emerged as a cost-effective way to work with patients and caregivers to improve healthcare for patients who habitually visit emergency rooms and fill hospital beds.

CHWs help patients meet non-medical needs by connecting them with community resources and providing social support. Integrating social and medical care can reduce healthcare costs by lowering hospitalization rates and empowering patients to take charge of their own health.

Another way Baylor Scott & White is addressing critical community needs is through the Community Advocates Program. This initiative pairs trained volunteers (often university students interested in healthcare careers) with clinicians, who then connect them with patients in need of community resources. These include everything from childcare to education and transportation. Community Advocates help patients meet their clinical, social and spiritual needs.

As she drove home from Waco that day, Shah realized that these and other efforts to provide better healthcare to underserved communities could be improved exponentially by the sharing of ideas and innovations among institutions and individuals confronting the same healthcare issues in North Texas. This insight eventually led to the first Connecting the Dots symposium.

The history of Connecting the Dots

Baylor Scott & White was the sole sponsor of the inaugural Connecting the Dots event in 2017, but 180 individuals representing 27 organizations from Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties participated, and as hoped, the symposium led to new collaborations and connections.

The objectives of the 2017 symposium were three-fold and included:

  • Building connections between the people and organizations who make referrals and those who receive them.
  • Synergizing, synchronizing and strategizing to build networks to better meet the clinical and social needs of patients in the community.
  • Facilitating and encouraging interaction among symposium participants through case studies and round-table sessions.

Symposium participants explored various patient needs — including food insecurity, housing, job placement, mental health and child care — through interactive case studies, roundtable sessions, brainstorming exercises and breakout sessions. In the breakout sessions, participants specifically addressed a number of issues in the hope that everyone would leave with at least one action item to work on during the coming year. The issues addressed in these sessions included the social determinants of healthcare, Medicaid payment sustainability and emergency department utilization by those living in medically underserved communities.

“The purpose of this symposium is to build connections, think creatively and figure out how to leverage each other’s resources to serve the population’s needs,” Shah says. “By analyzing cases, we can figure out how this affects their care.”

In 2018, Parkland Memorial Hospital and Texas Health Resources joined Connecting the Dots as co-sponsors, and participation doubled, with 300 attendees representing over 50 community and faith based organizations. Numerous panel discussions included representatives not only from the healthcare organizations, but charitable agencies such as Catholic Charities, Family Promise of Irving, United Way and others.

More progress came in 2019. Methodist Health System joined the effort as a Connecting the Dots co-sponsor, and for the first time, a number of government agencies and local universities sent representatives. In total, 250 attendees representing 75 organizations participated in the 2019 symposium. Issues addressed that year included ways in which healthcare facilities, along with government agencies and universities, could better promote healthcare literacy and the role of frontline medical staff in addressing the whole person’s medical needs: physical, mental and emotional.

The 2019 participants also continued conversation on a topic raised at the 2018 meeting: the creation of an ongoing collaborative healthcare effort called One Voice. In 2019, symposium attendees determined that through One Voice, healthcare organizations and participating local government agencies and universities would work together throughout the year to generate innovative plans and programs to better meet the healthcare needs of all the communities they served.

Mark your calendar

Plans are well underway for the 2020 symposium, which will be held at Irving Bible Church on May 14. Based on surveys and feedback from past participants, this year’s discussions will focus on the health needs of specific segments of our local population. These include members of the LGBTQ community, homeless, veterans and victims of human trafficking.

Ashley Rodriguez is organizing the 2020 symposium, and thinking of this year’s event and those to come, shares her optimism for the future. “I hope that we continue to build upon this symposium for years to come — that every year, more local non-profit organizations that provide critical services join in our efforts to collaborate across sectors,” Rodriguez said.

For more information on the 2020 Connecting the Dots symposium, visit bswh.md/ConnectingEvent.

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