No. 4, October 2004
COMMUNITY CASE STUDY
A Regional Health Care System Partnership With Local Communities to Impact
Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, Dennis R. Joyner, MPH, Teresa L. Scheid, PhD
Suggested citation for this article: Plescia M, Joyner DR, Scheid
TL. A regional health care system partnership with local communities to impact
chronic disease. Prev Chronic Dis [serial online] 2004 Oct [date
cited]. Available from: URL:
Regional health care systems have significant opportunities to adopt
community-oriented approaches that impact the incidence and burden of chronic
disease. In 1998, a vertically integrated, regional health care system
established a community health institute to identify, understand, and respond to
health needs from a community perspective. The project was implemented in four
communities (two rural counties, a rural/urban transitional county, and an
inner-city community) using five steps: 1) support or form a local community
coalition; 2) hire and support a local coordinator; 3) prepare a formal
community assessment; 4) fund locally designed interventions; and 5) evaluate
In four narrative case studies, we present the steps, challenges, and common
principles faced at the local level by Carolinas Community Health Institute. The
case studies were prepared using three data sources: reviews of written
documents, interviews with the seven-member steering committee, and interviews
with six key informants from each county. Data were coded and analyzed using
standard qualitative software to identify common themes and sources of variance
The project model was generally well accepted. Local autonomy and domain
disputes were challenges in all four sites. Funding for local projects was the
most frequently cited benefit. The project was successful in increasing local
capacity and supporting well-designed interventions to prevent chronic disease.
This approach can be used by large health care systems and by other organizations
to better support local health initiatives.
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The tremendous growth and consolidation of regional health care systems across
the United States have challenged hospital systems to understand the multiple
resources and needs of the diverse communities they serve. Large vertically
integrated systems now have opportunities to reach beyond the traditional
medical model and adopt community-oriented approaches that impact the incidence
and burden of chronic disease (1-6). While there has been considerable study of
coalitions and networks that have been formed to address community health issues
collaboratively (7-14), more information is needed on the role and experience of
regional health care systems in developing partnerships and supporting local
health promotion in the communities they serve.
The purpose of this case study evaluation is to describe the experience of a
large regional health care system in implementing a community health promotion
planning model in four diverse community settings. In this article, we present a
framework based on our findings to guide collaborative efforts between
health care systems and local communities to prevent and reduce the impact of
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In 1998, Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS), a vertically integrated,
nonprofit health authority, established Carolinas Community Health Institute (CCHI)
to assist communities in developing effective health promotion and disease
prevention initiatives. Funding for CCHI was provided by a federal grant from
the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA’s) Office of Rural
Health Policy, and the project was overseen by a seven-member steering committee. The structure
of the CCHI project, based on established community health planning theory,
involves five steps: 1) support or form a local community coalition; 2) hire and
support a local coordinator; 3) prepare a formal community assessment; 4) fund
locally designed interventions; and 5) evaluate each project. Over the six-year
course of the project, approximately half of the grant funds were distributed to
the counties in the form of salaries for local coordinators and funding for
specific, locally designed health promotion projects. CCHI recently expanded to
include a fifth site, and funding is now being negotiated with a local
The initiative was implemented in four geographical areas within the region:
a small rural county; a midsize rural county; a
transitional rural-urban county; and a high-density urban community in a
metropolitan county. Demographic data and burden of chronic disease indicators
are summarized for each area in Table 1.
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We used three data sources to document and describe each case study (19). All
data were collected by a research assistant who had not been previously involved
with the CCHI project. Narrative case reports were prepared for each of the four
projects using all three data sources. The case study materials were analyzed
collectively to draw cross-case conclusions about community capacity and
readiness to engage in community health planning efforts.
Review of written documents and records
Archival records were reviewed to document the implementation of CCHI in each
area. These records included the original grant proposal, county assessments,
project and intervention progress reports, county statistical data, and grant
proposals that resulted from CCHI resources.
The seven members of the steering committee were interviewed by
the same interviewer to determine how the implementation of the initiative
compared to its original intentions. Two of the authors of this report were
members of the steering committee and were also directly involved in the entire CCHI process. Our case study narratives draw from their understanding of how
implementation of the initiative was influenced by the local resources, needs,
priorities, and leadership styles that existed in each county.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the hospital chief executive
officer, the health department director, the CCHI local coordinator, and
coalition representatives in each county for a total of 24 interviews.
Respondents signed an informed consent form, approved by the health care system’s
Institutional Review Board. Respondents were asked to describe their role
in the project, the role that CCHI had played in the community, the benefits of
CCHI, the effectiveness of the intervention model, and the effect of CCHI on local
perceptions of the health care system.
Interviews were taped, transcribed, and analyzed using QSR N5 (QSR
International Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Australia), a software
package that allows for exploration and coding of qualitative data; text search;
quantitative assessment of prevalence of key themes; and examination of
relationships among key concepts (20). The research team worked collectively
through the coding of one interview transcript to identify a framework of themes
and concepts. Each researcher then independently reviewed each interview
transcript using this framework, and the group agreed upon a common set of themes
and categories for coding. The analysis was led by an author not affiliated with
the CCHI project; this author coded each transcript and prepared a summary of
the key findings. Narrative case reports were prepared for each of the four
projects using data from all three sources. The case study materials were again
analyzed to draw cross-case conclusions about the characteristics of local
communities that define their capacity to engage in community health planning
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The small rural county
CCHI worked with an existing coalition of representatives from the hospital,
health department, and local agencies. There was strong collaboration, but
membership was limited in scope. Despite recruitment efforts, there were few
African American participants and there was limited participation from the local
school system and local community health center. Planning was more reactive than
proactive because local needs were often overwhelming, but participants
maintained a high level of pride, energy, and involvement. One influential
leader played a dominant role within the coalition, partly because of repeated
turnover in health department leadership during the course of the project. The
results of the CCHI community assessment were not highly utilized, and
controversy took place over some funding decisions. Much of this stemmed from a
perception of CCHI staff as outsiders and a strong concern about preserving
local autonomy in decision making. Coalition members felt that the county should
determine CCHI funding because it was acutely aware of local needs and had
specific programs that needed funding.
Local stakeholder reaction
Of the four study sites, this county had the most negative perception of
CCHI and maintained a perception of CCHI as “Big Brother.” Respondents were less
likely to report that the project resulted in improved coalition building, was
responsive to local needs, used a flexible approach, or had improved the image
of CHS. Respondents indicated that CCHI and county priorities were not in
agreement. One stakeholder commented, “I think CCHI needs to rely more on the
[coalition]. . . . [T]here was some controversy because decisions were made
about grants in Charlotte rather than in [our county].”
However, the majority of respondents indicated that the system of health care
was better as a result of CCHI interventions and that the director of CCHI was
highly respected. Resources and expertise were the most frequently cited
benefits provided by CCHI, with funding for local initiatives clearly identified
as the most important aspect. One respondent said, “[The] county is a poor rural
county and there are just not that [many] resources here, but CCHI has helped the
[group] find resources that [we] did not think [we] could find.”
Midsize rural county
CCHI worked with a preexisting local coalition comprised of leaders of the
major health and human service organizations who had considerable experience
working together to assess community health needs and implement health
improvement initiatives. While they were eager to work with CCHI, they clearly
wanted their planning and organizational efforts to drive the process and were
concerned that CCHI would duplicate local energies. To address this concern,
efforts were made to augment and enhance existing assessments with previously
unused data and integration of geographic information system mapping
technology. Members of the coalition were also concerned about how data would be
used, and there was initial difficulty gaining access to state and local health
department data. An agreement was reached whereby available funds would
primarily support activities specified in the coalition’s action plan. This
would allow coalition members to expand existing efforts and build a greater
Local stakeholder reaction
Interviews indicated an overall positive perception of the CCHI project.
CCHI was described as a facilitator and partner, and respondents in the county
were outspoken about CCHI having worked with the county and used a flexible
approach. Critical to the success of CCHI was the perception that local autonomy
had been preserved, and the community was empowered by CCHI to develop a better
health care system. One participant commented, “[CCHI has] empowered us
not only with resources, but the ability to choose how to use them. . . . CCHI
understands our strengths and has allowed us to use those strengths.”
The majority of respondents described staff support as a significant
benefit of CCHI and reported increased coordination within the county. However,
many felt that the needs assessment duplicated existing efforts. Availability of
funding for local interventions was the most commonly stated benefit. For
example, one respondent offered this statement: “CCHI has helped us go from a
virtual organization . . . to a more permanent organization because of our
ability to access funding through CCHI and our ability to have a coordinator.”
This project was unique among the four projects because it built on a
community-oriented primary care effort — a coalition of local community
residents and health care providers who had begun to define and address
community health issues. However, initial distrust of the health care system was
a significant challenge for CCHI staff. Residents had questions about the intent
of the project and were highly suspicious of CCHI’s long-term commitment to
continued support of community-based initiatives. Community groups were highly
independent and were often distrustful of so-called data-driven issues or needs.
There were significant conflicts over how funds would be distributed to the
community. However, community organizations were perceived by CCHI as being
loosely organized, and there were concerns about their capacity to take on
additional responsibilities without significant support. Some of these conflicts
improved as the coalition gained experience working collaboratively on the
community assessment and interventions.
Local stakeholder reaction
Interviews with CCHI stakeholders revealed a surprisingly positive view of
CCHI. Issues of trust and independence were a common theme, but it was clear that CCHI had made progress in overcoming the community’s original image of the
health care system. One stakeholder said, “There was significant community
distrust about Carolinas HealthCare Systems’ lack of responsiveness to the
community needs. I think while some of that is still there, much of it has
dissipated based on getting to know one another and discussing some things. I
think [CCHI] may have changed the community attitude.”
Respondents in this community were the most likely of all sites to feel that
CCHI had a direct impact on coalition building and overcoming existing disputes
over priorities within the county. The respondents felt that the CCHI model had
helped produce community-based care and had provided coalition-building efforts.
One commented, “One of the benefits is that CCHI brings another resource to the
table, not only in the terms of funding but also in terms of involving
community members at the neighborhood level, and getting input, . . .
involvement, . . . and creating a sense of ownership for the folks at that
This county was furthest behind in implementing the CCHI model and struggled to
develop a coalition. Some community health leaders questioned the need for a
coalition. Among those who saw potential benefit, there was concern about
sustainability and commitment. A fiscally conservative political
atmosphere had limited collaboration among service organizations to small
projects. Because initial attempts to develop an active coalition were not
successful, initiatives and projects were developed and produced almost solely
by the coordinator. To revitalize the process, a chairperson with local name
recognition was identified and a coalition slowly began to form. Based on the
findings of the health needs assessment, several community health interventions
were developed and funded.
Local stakeholder reaction
Similar to the other sites, respondents were positive in their evaluation of
CCHI. The majority felt that CCHI had provided needed resources and reported
increased collaboration with CCHI. Funding was the most commonly stated benefit.
A respondent said, “This past year they allocated about one hundred thousand
dollars for grants. . . . There are some new programs and new things that got
started because of that funding.”
Most respondents felt that CCHI had played a major role in developing
coalitions, although some were critical of the coordinator for not facilitating
further collaboration. Uncertainty and understanding of the coordinator’s role
was identified as a particular challenge to the process. Several respondents
reported that the coordinator role faced positional challenges: “She has been
strained in many ways. It’s been a one-man operation. . . . She’s been by herself
. . . and
had very little assistance . . . and hasn’t had a lot of resources.”
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Our interviews and case studies provide useful information on how to engage
communities and large health care systems in ways that go beyond the medical care
model. Within the CCHI communities, historical experiences with the health care
system were highly significant. Communities were suspicious of CCHI’s intentions
and concerned that the health care system would attempt to set agendas with
little community input. Communities were reluctant to share certain health care
data, and they were concerned that existing efforts would be duplicated.
These concerns were settled to varying degrees as working relationships evolved
and resources and services became available that were seen to supplement and
support local efforts. Local coordinators were important in increasing
receptivity. They played a key role in helping to establish all the projects
because of their personal and professional connections and knowledge of local
resources and efforts, and they were perceived as valuable resources in all the
sites. Attempts to institutionalize their role occurred in two counties, and a
part-time position was created in a third.
The communities involved in the CCHI project represented diverse economic
backgrounds. Two communities had experienced significant population migration
and loss of local industry. One had high levels of poverty and unemployment.
These communities had strong senses of need and discouragement over seemingly
intractable socioeconomic situations. CCHI funding for local demonstration
projects was clearly seen as the most significant benefit of the project. In the
transitional rural community, proximity to a prosperous urban center had
stimulated the local economy. However, a conservative political climate had
limited the community’s momentum to expand local efforts or pursue progressive
programs. In this community, much of CCHI’s efforts were geared toward building
capacity by offering structure and support.
Overall, the project was effective in advancing local efforts in all four
settings by increasing local capacity and by supporting comprehensive approaches
to chronic disease prevention. Table 2 summarizes the main outcomes of the
project. Specific changes and accomplishments are documented for three core
areas: increases in breadth and diversity of
participation in public health planning, support of local structure, and identification of additional
funding sources for sustainability. While many of these changes in local
capacity may have occurred independently of this project, it is clear from the
comments of local stakeholders that the resources provided by CCHI contributed
to and often served as a catalyst for needed action.
Funding was provided to each county for a wide range of interventions related
to health promotion and chronic disease prevention. Evaluation of the
interventions has been qualitative and process oriented as measurable
improvements in behavior or physiologic indicators are unlikely to be seen so
soon. The goal of the local funding component was to promote and support a full
spectrum of health promotion strategies using a multilevel approach. Table 2
documents interventions related to organizational development, individual
behavior change, and changes in policy and environment in each county. This
approach was intended to provide a broad foundation of health promotion
infrastructure that could eventually lead to sustainable improvements in chronic
In four case studies, we have presented the steps, challenges, and
opportunities faced by a large health care system seeking to create
collaborative health planning projects to impact chronic disease at the
community level. Our approach included six components that appeared to be
relatively well accepted in all four sites. Distrust and the need for local
autonomy were important areas of conflict. The project was successful in
increasing local capacity and supporting multilevel interventions to prevent
chronic disease. Our experience should be particularly instructive to large
health care systems in developing and supporting local community health
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Funding for this project was provided by a federal grant from the HRSA Office
of Rural Health Policy.
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Corresponding author: Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, Carolinas Community Health
Institute, Carolinas HealthCare System and North Carolina Division of Public
Health,1915 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1915. Telephone:
919-715-0125. E-mail: email@example.com.
Author affiliations: Dennis R. Joyner, MPH, Carolinas Community Health
Institute, Carolinas HealthCare System; Teresa L. Scheid, PhD, Department of
Sociology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC.
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