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Access, care for mental health, substance use disorders named priorities for DeKalb County hospitals

Health priorities for Kishwaukee, Valley West hospitals according to Northwestern Medicine surveys

A Sycamore Fire Department ambulance pulls up to the new entryway to the emergency room Monday, March 28, 2022, at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital. The second phase of the three-phase renovation project was recently completed in the ER at the facility.

DeKALB – Access to health care and community resources. Mental health and substance use disorders. Chronic disease.

Those were the three priorities identified for Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital from the hospital’s 2021 community health needs assessment, according to the health care system. Each community serviced by a Northwestern Medicine hospital was surveyed in 2021 to identify areas of need and how the hospitals could best utilize resources to help support those needs. In 2022, implementation plans were rolled out among the health system for Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb and Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.

Both hospitals identified the same three areas of need, with an added priority of older adults and aging at Valley West Hospital, said Renee Ellingson, manager of community affairs for Northwestern Medicine. Other areas of need included women’s health, transportation, cancer, environment, immunization and infectious disease and public safety.

“They’re pretty typical of what we were looking at and what we felt,” Ellingson said. “Particularly the mental health, because we were doing the [assessment] right during the COVID[-19] time.”

Plans to address need

As part of Northwestern Medicine’s implementation plan to address health needs in DeKalb County, steps were outlined over the next three years. Those steps include improved community engagement, especially among love-income and communities where resources are lacking to promote access, according to the implementation plan. The health system also plans to increase no-cost and reduced-cost screening options for people who don’t have health insurance or can’t afford needed checkups such as breast cancer screenings and routine mammograms.

Additional funding channels also are listed under Kishwaukee Hospital’s implementation plan, including local, state and federal options.

Under its plans to address mental health and substance use disorders, access to crisis response, training and community referrals is highlighted. That includes expanded emphasis on the resources provided through the Ben Gordon Center in DeKalb.

For public health initiatives outside of the hospital, the health system plans to collaborate with organizations locally to increase access to fresh and health food.

Under each plan of action, Northwestern Medicine has pledged to provide hospital and health system staff to help facilitate the goals, according to the report.

Traditionally, access to health care and community resources has been identified in past surveys, Ellingson said, and is a continuous priority for the health system. Disease management always will be a priority, too, she said, including for patients with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer or chronic illness.

“So not a big surprise, actually, in either of the areas,” Ellingson said.

Dawn Roznowski, director of community affairs for Northwestern Medicine, said the tri-annual community health needs assessment is not a hospital patient survey. Rather, it’s meant to gauge the pulse of stakeholders and residents within the hospital’s service area through multiple forms, including paper, over the phone or online.

“From a community perspective, when we question the stakeholders and the community at large, we ask them a number of questions – I think it’s quite a few – on everything, from their opinion on what they feel is the most pressing issue,” Roznowski said. “Whether it’s a health-related issue, a social community issue, whether it’s a financial issue – you know, whatever the case may be.”

Once the health system gets the survey answers back, Northwestern Medicine officials determine next steps based on how many of the answers included certain topics and what weight the issues carry.

“And we say, ‘OK, it seems that this is a public opinion issue that is coming to the top. Does the data support that in what we’re seeing?’ In some instances it does,” Roznowski said. “In some instances, it doesn’t. But at the end of the day, we look at identifying and addressing issues that we feel as a hospital, we can affect change.”

Roznowski cited mental health as an example, since it was identified as a priority in the assessments.

“We know that, internally, we have a number of programs in the community,” Roznowski said. “But when something like this shows up in our community health needs assessment and we share that with our leadership teams locally and across the system ... maybe our strategy team looks at it and says, ‘Oh, we might need to identify additional resources to put into that service line to address the issues in that community.’”

Other health system stakeholders, such as the Northwestern Memorial Foundation or the health system’s human resources team, might offer additional solutions, such as soliciting grant funds or addressing patient to provider ratios.

Roznowski said the community health implementation plan is written in general statements by design.

“We might support programs and activities that other organizations can deliver,” Roznowski said. “We may look toward supporting financially with ... grants or donations.”

Ellingson said she thinks of the process as a living three-year strategic plan.

“We have to remain fluid,” she said. “Because if things aren’t working, then we need to make some changes to that.”

Roznowski agreed with Ellingson, saying the hospitals also account for things that may arise unexpectedly during the three-year cycle while plans are implemented.

“So it just sort of ebbs and flows,” Roznowski said. “It’s very fluid in the sense that we will work together with others to try and help address whatever issues are emerging or whatever ones might still be going on from year after year.”