Health care has evolved dramatically since 1912 when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange ministered to victims of the flu epidemic in Eureka, California.
But the mission of the founding Sisters has remained the same. “We are committed to those who are poor and vulnerable at the margins of society,” says Rosie Perez, senior vice president of Mission Integration at St. Joseph Health.
The Affordable Care Act has enabled the poor to access health care, says Perez. “We know the ACA is not perfect, but we would like to see work done on it without a full-on repeal,” she says.
Identifying the needs of all O.C. communities and reaching those who need help most is the ongoing work of St. Joseph Health, and it often requires innovative practices. This means reaching the community beyond our hospital walls, says Perez.
A little-known part of the Affordable Care Act offers guidance on how to determine what a community needs in terms of health.
“The ACA specifically outlines how to create a community health needs assessment,” says Perez. “It must describe the community, obtain relevant statistics, and even engage academic partners to interpret those statistics. It calls for us to work with partners to prioritize the issues,” she says.
As a nurse for 30 years, Perez saw the rise in diabetes, asthma, obesity and other chronic illnesses. But health needs assessments in Orange County reveal factors that contribute to those and other health problems.
Contributing health factors
“Affordable housing is the foundation of good health,” says Perez. “Orange County housing is expensive, people who are dealing with a lot of health issues risk losing their housing.”
Getting enough good food is another factor. “The need for access to affordable, healthy food is consistently identified in community health assessments,” says Perez. “We see the effects of this in obesity in children. One in every six Orange County children in 5th grade is obese.”
Transportation is critical, too: Being able to get to a doctor’s office or to an income-earning job can positively impact a person’s health.
Working with partners
Once needs are identified, Perez says St. Joseph Health works with local partners to find solutions.
“For example, to address the food access issue, we work with the Waste Not OC Coalition in helping distribute food to local pantries. We’ve also given grants to food pantries and food-related programs so families can get healthy food,” she says.
To combat childhood obesity, St. Joseph Health partners with organizations such as the YMCA to develop exercise and wellness programs.
Reaching the poor
One challenge facing St. Joseph Health is that some disadvantaged communities are not aware of the existing programs that can help them.
“Sometimes the first point of contact is when people come in through emergency room or hospital,” says Perez. “That’s our opportunity to make them aware of programs right in their back yard, such as community clinics and mobile units that go out to underserved communities.”
To facilitate communication, translators are often on hand for programs, and health materials are provided in languages other than English. “We’ve always done that, it’s a legacy from the Sisters in 17th-century France,” says Perez.
A commitment to OC communities
Perez is proud to say that St. Joseph Health spent $441 million last year to benefit surrounding communities. “Despite the constant change, regulatory and otherwise, we are committed to meeting needs of our communities and staying true to our legacy,” she says.