"We have a partnership - you want to look at the world through a health lens, how can we help you do that meaningfully?”, that's a question Claire Gram, commonly asks the community leaders she works with in her role in Population Health at VCH.
Claire and her coworkers work with communities to help them learn and build capacity, empowering them to improve people’s health by focusing on the social determinants of health.
Many factors have an influence on health. In addition to our individual genetics and lifestyle choices, where we are born, grow, live, work and age also have an important influence on our health.
The main determinants of health include:
- Income and social status
- Employment and working conditions
- Education and literacy
- Childhood experiences
- Physical environments
- Social supports and coping skills
- Healthy behaviours
- Access to health services
- Biology and genetic endowment
Local governments can create policies and programs that have a large effect on the determinants of health.
Claire’s team has Healthy Communities Collaboration Agreements with 12 of 14 municipalities, and other types of partnerships with other communities.
Claire describes these agreements as bilateral partnerships—a conversation where both parties identify priority areas and projects that would benefit from collaboration. While each agreement is different, they all hold an annual check-up at which, VCH, municipal staff, and council reflect on the past year and prioritize for the future.
Claire explains that when VCH sees a topic emerge, they work with outside partners to generate knowledge and data to first assess the topic, and then work with local governments to take action.
VCH works with the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, the BC Healthy Built Environment Alliance, and the BC Alliance for Healthy Living, amongst others. VCH then shares the materials developed through these collaborations through partners like PlanH, a partnership between the BC Healthy Communities Society and the BC Ministry of Health, that can help share the knowledge widely.
In 2014 Squamish was getting ready to review its official community plan, an overarching guide used by City Council and City staff for decision making on planning and land management issues. Through the collaboration with Squamish, VCH, and other key partners, at a joint learning event, early childhood development was brought up as a priority area.
“It was an A-ha moment for council,” said Patricia Heintzman, Mayor of the District of Squamish. “I remember sitting in the room, seeing the staff, everyone thinking we live in the most beautiful, happy place, and then we saw the statistics about the vulnerability of our children entering kindergarten. We had to act.”
Collaborating with VCH, the District of Squamish included healthy community goals, objectives and policies, as well as a variety of evidence-based measures in their new official community plan. A Children’s Charter was created and integrated into the community plan.
At the end of 2017 the collaboration agreement formally ended. But the partnership between VCH and Squamish continues, with the District re-examining their health priorities annually and determining what actions they plan to undertake.
“We initially signed that community collaboration agreement,” said Heintzman, “because it helped clarify our goals and create a new relationship. Now, collaborating with VCH is embedded in our culture. Whether we are talking about early childhood development or diabetes, we always think about how we want to build the town in collaboration with VCH.”
VCH’s healthy communities teams have helped communities achieve remarkable things. In Squamish, the United Way’s Avenues of Change program committed to invest $400,000 in early childhood development. United Way made this investment because of the collaborative work between Squamish and VCH, and the need for collective action as evidenced by local health data.
“It’s hard to believe we ever planned our community or made big decisions without collaborating with VCH,” said Heintzman. “I think every community should be doing this, and I think it’s only the beginning of this new way of building communities.”
Story written by BC Healthy Communities and VCH.