Hospitals' community benefit work has been coming under increased scrutiny in recent years, with the government and others asking tax-exempt health care providers to demonstrate that they understand and are responding to priority health needs in their communities. A distance learning course from Saint Louis University's School of Public Health is designed to equip community benefit staff members with the skills they need to do this.
Kristin Wilson, the director of the graduate certificate in community benefit program, said nonprofit hospitals within and outside of the ministry are recognizing that their community benefit staff members need to build up a new knowledge base to meet both community needs and government requirements with respect to their tax-advantaged status.
Wilson, an assistant professor in SLU's department of health management and policy, said the university developed the graduate-level certificate course to teach community benefit staff how to assess community needs from a public health perspective and respond to those needs in a strategic way.
The program was launched a year ago, and just graduated its first group — four students received certificates after the summer semester. Certification requires six, three-hour courses that can be completed in three semesters, but students can choose how many courses to take per semester.
Eighteen credit hours are required to earn the certificate. The courses can be applied toward a master's in public health degree at SLU. Wilson said that in most cases, the program has found that the student's employer will pay for some or all of the tuition. Ministry health systems and facilities have expressed interest in the certificate program, said Wilson, in large part because provisions passed in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last year heighten the urgency for tax-exempt hospitals to be systematic in how they approach community benefit. The program has had a measured start so far, though, as only 11 students have enrolled, Wilson said.
SLU used input from CHA and the association's Community Benefit Advisory Committee to develop the program, and both SLU professors and advisory committee members serve as faculty. As a Jesuit school, SLU roots its curriculum, and particularly its social justice and social ethics courses, in Catholic social teaching. An ethics and a social justice course is part of the community benefit certificate curriculum. The curriculum also incorporates the systematic and measured approach to community benefit developed by CHA and its members over the past two decades, said Lucy Reinhart, a SLU program coordinator.
Provisions of the health reform law require more exactitude in assessing and addressing community needs. State and local governments, too, are paying more attention to tax-exempt hospitals' community benefit activity. Illinois, for instance, has been challenging the tax-exempt status of several facilities, and more are likely to come under scrutiny in the future, Wilson said. The course explains how hospitals can be ready for such scrutiny.
Wilson said the SLU program goes further to develop leadership vision. It pushes students to prepare for other changes ahead. "There will be an ongoing need to think more broadly about community benefit and to demonstrate the value of community benefit programs," she said.
Julie Trocchio, CHA senior director of community benefit, said, "We have seen community benefit programs soar when leaders have public health expertise. The SLU certificate program helps people in the field who learned by doing, to get the public health knowledge and evidence base that will enrich their programs."
Donna Meyer is a retired CHRISTUS Health community benefit leader who now is an adjunct associate professor for the certificate program.
She said the course work teaches students to put in place programs that will help people in their communities prevent health problems and to manage their health more effectively. She thinks course participants will be capable of great things. "Major advances in the science of community benefit will be made by these leaders in the future," she predicted.
Eva Von Sossan is a community benefit assistant at St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, who enrolled in the sequence in its inaugural semester. She said the course has made her aware of the wealth of resources available to community benefit staff. She's built up her understanding of how to collect and use the data associated with community benefit work, particularly when it comes to measuring outcomes.
She said the certificate course has given her "opportunities to connect with other community benefit professionals. We are scattered throughout the country, but we have encountered similar situations. In response to items on the discussion board, we share our thoughts, ideas and experiences.
"Our group plans to continue to communicate after completion of the program," she said.
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