How OSF HealthCare is Tackling Health Issues at Their Roots, Outside the Hospital

Aug 15, 2019

We think of hospitals as places one goes to receive medical treatment. OSF HealthCare is exploring ways to prevent people from ending up there in the first place.

Keeping people healthy depends on a lot more than just what services a hospital can offer. That’s how Dr. Sarah Stewart de Ramirez sees it, and as OSF Innovation’s vice president and chief medical officer for clinical innovation, it’s her job.

“We find that it’s important in terms of thinking about the introduction of new tools, technologies and innovations, that we bear in mind that we inside the four walls of our hospital, do not determine the predominant amount of health outcomes that our patients are experiencing," she said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates less than half of a person’s overall health is determined by formalized medical care. 

The factors making up most health issues are called social determinants of health. They include food insecurity, housing quality, mental health resources, health literacy, and access to transportation. 

Rural and low-income communities with less access to care also have more of these social challenges to health.

Two years ago, Ramirez and her team spearheaded the start of the Complex Solutions Innovation team in Peoria, Monmouth, and Pontiac. The group tackles some of these day-to-day struggles to try to improve long term health. 

Jo Garrison is the director of ambulatory care for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. OSF took an interest in food access issues in Peoria, as grocery stores continue to close, particularly in the city’s South Side. 

Garrison said about eleven percent of Illinoisans are considered food-insecure. In the 61605 ZIP code that covers the South Side, it was more than fifteen percent. 

“We exceeded the Illinois rate. And so we really thought, wow, we’ve really got to put our heads together and do better than that," Garrison said. 

OSF HealthCare formed a Community Garden Committee with the City of Peoria, Peoria Park District, University of Illinois Extension, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria and other organizations. 

OSF bought 2.1 acres of vacant lots from the city to start community gardens and hired a gardening coordinator. The focus, though, isn’t just about boosting access to fresh foods and vegetables, but tackling the other social determinants of health and well-being. 

This includes cooking classes, workout routines, and enjoying the therapeutic calming benefits of gardening. 

“We’re really looking at this whole behavior modification and behavior change to really hopefully enhance their knowledge and how that can impact their overall health," Garrison said. 

De Ramirez says in rural communities like Pontiac and Monmouth, the solutions are different for the challenges posed by social determinants of health. Smaller towns also have smaller networks of social service providers. 

She said people and healthcare providers need more screening for social health factors and a readily-accessible network of data and analytics to better deploy solutions for these issues moving forward.