Collaborating for Healthier Communities in Island Health

Partners in Cowichan worked as part of a Community Health Network with Island Health, developing a Regional Airshed Protection Strategy. Photo courtesy Province of BC (flickr.com)

Island Health provides health care and support services to more than 767,000 people on Vancouver Island, the islands of the Salish Sea and the Johnstone Strait, and the mainland communities north of Powell River. Island Health works in partnership with communities to create conditions that support Islanders to stay physically and mentally healthy. There are many ways Island Health and local governments are working together to enhance the health and wellness of the population through preventative interventions at the community level. Read on to learn more about these partnerships, explore a case study and find out who to contact.  

Island Health and Healthy Communities

Island Health provides community wellness grants, capacity building services and planning consultations to local communities with the goal of improving the health and wellness of the population. Island Health also supports a partnership model—the Community Health Network—which focuses on the social determinants of health, working alongside communities to take action to address shared goals related to the root causes of illness in the community; for example, housing, food security, healthy eating, early child development, poor air quality and social isolation.

“Island Health has a big role to play in supporting a healthy population but we can’t make the necessary impact alone,” said Analisa Blake, Island Health’s Project Manager for Food Security, Healthy Lifestyles and Community Health Networks. “There are many factors that affect health that have nothing to do with health care—other sectors have the power to make a big difference on the things that really keep people healthy and well. Many groups are working together on this. Local government and First Nations communities are key partners; so are schools, local not-for-profit agencies, the local business community, and citizens too.”

How does Island Health collaborate with Local Governments?

Partnering on shared priorities through Community Health Networks

Community Health Networks (CHN) provide a venue for local governments, First Nations communities, and other community partners from a wide range of sectors to come together to address the social determinants of health and modifiable risk factors.

The CHN model was first initiated in Mount Waddington in 2006, through community consultations that occurred as part of a health system redesign in that region. That process identified an opportunity for community collaboration in addressing the social determinants of health.

The second CHN started in Cowichan when the community came together to express its concerns about Island Health’s decision to decommission an aging residential care facility. The CHN then began to focus its collective efforts on other issues that were affecting the health of residents in the Cowichan Valley.

“Both networks emerged organically,” said Blake. “But in Cowichan we already had the example from Mount Waddington and so that provided an example for these concerned community partners to continue to work together over the long term.”

Once other communities saw the benefits of having a CHN, they began to replicate the process. In 2018, nearly every region in Island Health has a CHN.

“CHNs are fully embedded in the community and jointly lead by coalitions of invested community partners,” Blake said. “Local and regional governments, non-profits, First Nations, charitable agencies, and school districts are just some of the groups who contribute. Island Health is one partner among many.”

 A CHN can expand capacity, create efficiency, and present many new opportunities for addressing root causes of health issues in communities, especially in some smaller communities where local governments and the charitable sector have more limited capacity.

Partnering to create Healthy Built Environments

Island Health works directly with local governments in a consultative role to provide health-focused commentary in the development of new municipal policies, bylaws and community plans.

“This is where our healthy built environment work fits in,” said Blake. “We have Environmental Health Officers who receive specialized training from the regional Built Environment Consultant and Medical Officers of Health to review municipal documents with a healthy built environment lens. Written commentary is provided to the local government and the end result is policy that is going to shape the physical development of communities in a way that promotes health and well-being.”

Island Health’s process is called the Land Use Referral Program, and Blake explained that this kind of consultation is a growing area.

“Local governments are becoming more aware that this service is available and are asking more and more for Island Health’s input on their documents,” said Blake. “They also invite us to sit in on advisory tables for more substantial planning processes, or to provide health data in presentations to their boards and councils.”

The relationship between Island Health and local governments is not only about Island Health providing input on municipal policy. Island Health also looks to local governments and other community partners to provide input and guidance regarding health sector initiatives.

Catalyzing local action through Community Wellness Grants

Island communities are a hotbed of innovation and localized expertise when it comes to creating healthy places. In support of local action for healthy communities, Island Health offers an opportunity through one-time grants for community organizations wishing to implement projects that align with key priorities related to community health and wellness. 2018 marks the second year of Island Health’s community wellness granting program.

Island Health’s community wellness granting program provides the opportunity for not-for-profit organizations, local government organizations and Aboriginal communities to apply for one-time funding for new projects. Community wellness grants are targeted at modifiable risk factors and social determinants of health; for example, healthy eating/food security and physical activity, social and family connectedness, positive mental health, healthy child and youth development, and healthy aging.  

Case study: Our Cowichan stewards the airshed roundtable

“A CHN links health, government, and community together,” said Cindy Lise, Regional Facilitator for Our Cowichan (CHN for Cowichan Valley). “Our Cowichan brings together partners on many different topics.”

“What we do at Our Cowichan,” said Lise, “is take some of our most complex challenges, work with community partners and find ways to address them within our community.”

In 2014, a medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley reported to the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) that respiratory illnesses occurred more often in Cowichan than nearly anywhere else in the province.

“He had the data,” said Lise. “The number of people admitted to hospital, the number of systemic respiratory related health problems—that data catalyzed the community.”

The CVRD and Ministry of Environment came together with other regional partners who either impacted air quality or were impacted by it. Partners included Catalyst Paper, CVRD, Duncan, North Cowichan, University of Victoria, Island Health, Cowichan Tribes, and many others.

Our Cowichan was also one of the partners on the Air Shed Protection Roundtable. During the time the CVRD led the process, Our Cowichan received a grant from PlanH to bring a collective impact lens to the work. This helped the Roundtable remove barriers between siloed organizations, and eventually create Cowichan’s Regional Airshed Protection Strategy.

“This is a high-level policy guide,” said Lise, “and the immediate question was, ‘Who owns this? How do we steward this and make it happen when you have these diverse partners at the table?’” The partners agreed that because Our Cowichan had no responsibility beyond bringing people together they could be a neutral entity with no conflict of interest who could facilitate the Roundtable.

“We had the ability to call meetings, set agendas and document the work everyone had been doing,” said Lise. “We connect partners who otherwise may not have spoken.”

Island Health helped with funding and also participated at the Roundtable, bringing its policy expertise as well as data and evidence-based strategies. To this day, the Roundtable is a true collaboration, with no one organization controlling it.

“It took time to build the relationships and trust that make this project successful,” said Lise. “I remember at one closing circle, a member shared with the group. They said, ‘I always thought you were the enemy. I was wrong.’”

The project continues to be quite active. The partners still meet twice a year at the Roundtable and serve on working groups with community partners to build and deliver on strategies throughout the year.

“This is an ongoing initiative that community partners will continue to work on together over time,” said Lise.

Working with Island Health

It takes a whole community working together in partnership to foster the kind of systems change necessary to improve the health and wellness of the population. With a variety of partnership pathways in place, Island Health aims to be a meaningful partner in these efforts, whether communities choose to explore grant funding, collaborate on new policy or partner in a community health network.

If you are interesting in bringing Island Health to the table in your efforts to improve community health, start by contacting your local Medical Health Officer. If you are not sure who to contact, get in touch with Analisa Blake, at 250-755-6215 x 56244 or visit PlanH's Health Authority Contacts page for more contact information.