Part II: Collaborating to Improve Health Behaviors in Genesee County, Michigan

March 21, 2011

In an April 2011 Rankings in Action webinar, Kirk Smith, president and CEO of the Greater Flint Health Coalition (GFHC) commented that the 2011 County Health Rankings were "...a good tool to wake people up.” Ranked 78th out of 82 Michigan counties for health outcomes and last for health behaviors, Genesee County leaders appreciated the wake up call to create a County Health Rankings action plan. The GFHC is now implementing the plan, using it to generate community action around health behaviors associated with physical activity, diet and smoking. We caught up with Smith recently to hear how things are going.

Birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and General Motors (GM), the Flint area is known as a “community in recovery.” While Smith acknowledges the challenges are significant, he feels the past months have demonstrated that the social capital already exists through the GFHC for turning the community around. As testimony, Smith says the response to the first part of the coalition’s action plan, the community-wide Commit to Fit! campaign has exceeded all expectations. The campaign uses a focused social marketing strategy and a new web-based interactive tool to engage local residents in “fun, simple ways to practice healthy behaviors.” When GFHC rolled out the program’s first workplace wellness-based challenge in the fall of 2011, they were hoping 10 employers would participate. Instead, more than 50 participated, and nearly 5,000 individuals logged into the new site over 30,000 times in the first three weeks alone. From that launch, momentum has carried over to the medical community, local faith-based organizations, schools and other parts of the community.

For many adults and children, Smith says, “it’s the first time they’ve really contemplated their health behavior choices,” a critical first step in the overall change process.

To motivate participation, users are encouraged to engage in community-wide goals like this winter’s 3 Ton Healthy Weight Loss Challenge, where participants track their healthy behaviors (nutrition, activity, hydration, and weight) on an electronic dashboard which generates an opportunity to win prizes. The site also features testimonials from Commit to Fit! participants and an opportunity to send e-invitations to others to join the movement. According to Smith, the website is a “virtual community hub,” proving that the community has “significant ability to work together.”

In addition to the successful launch of a community-wide campaign to promote healthy lifestyles and behaviors, the GFHC is building on existing efforts to increase community support for infant breastfeeding, promoting and expanding local business’ and colleges’ successful efforts to create smoke-free campuses, and overseeing several new sub-committees focused on workplace and school wellness. Further, the forthcoming City of Flint master planning process presents an opportunity to improve the future physical environment of Flint, and the GFHC looks forward to collaborating with local government, community leaders, the city planning commission, and others to ensure that health factors represented in their County Health Rankings Action Plan will be considered in all appropriate facets of the master plan's development.

Smith has three recommendations for communities engaged in this work:

  1. Build a neutral, multi-sector, diverse coalition focused on the same purpose (even when they may compete in other arenas). Develop a process for succession so that as people leave, new leaders automatically replace them. Leaders can help each other work around roadblocks inside their own organizations. If the potential for such an entity exists (or if one exists already as was the case with the 15-year old GFHC), build on that.
  2. Build a plan, know what you want to accomplish, and get to work. Key to GFHC’s momentum has been the development of multiple sub-committees charged with accomplishing the action plan’s goals.
  3. Use ONE message or vehicle to bring everyone together, and make it measurable.  Commit to Fit! is a broad-based community engagement program which is building the community’s capacity to work together while improving residents’ health via a shared approach.

If there is any one “lesson learned” along the way so far, Smith says that while it’s important to identify champions, “the person who is the real champion may not be the first person who comes to mind.” While organizational leaders are key, in some entities people deep in organizations are often the first to recognize the value of an idea and may have more latitude to run with it initially. In the face of setbacks and challenges, Smith advises leaders to be “relentless” and not give up; there’s always a way to get things done, but it may not be the way you first imagined.

Link to the GFHC's 2020 Strategic Business Plan

Read Part I: Collaborating to Improve Health Behaviors in Genesee County, Michigan

Read Part III: Collaborating to Improve Community Safety in Genesee County, Michigan