The Thumb Community Health Partnership (TCHP) is a cross-sector network located in the “Thumb Region” of Michigan, encompassing Huron, Lapeer, Sanilac, and Tuscola counties. It includes 19 members (local hospitals, local mental health authorities, public health departments, and a community action agency), and is focused on developing a regional, coordinated strategy for health improvement.  

The Georgia Health Policy Center recently spoke to Kay Balcer, network director for TCHP, about participation in the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s Network Development grant program. 


To date, what has been an early win in your Network grant program?  

One of our earliest wins that we are very excited about is related to data collection and needs assessments. Our group is committed to making data-informed decisions. We conducted a needs assessment early in the process, which resulted in selection of our priority programs — behavioral health and chronic disease. We also developed a dashboard that includes health indicators for our region, as well as data for our two priority programs.  

Our dashboard is why we do our work. It is an anchor that keeps us focused. We find it very important as a communication tool and to monitor our progress. We also have a much more detailed document called a Data Chart Book. The chart book is comprehensive and includes all health issues that were identified in Rural Healthy People 2020, not just our priority areas. We provide public access to the TCHP Dashboard on our website. We have a partner page, where we provide access to our Data Chart Book which is an Excel document. The chart book is a little unwieldy for public consumption; however, for our partners, it works great because they can extract charts and data tables to use in their own work and in their own publications.  


What is a tip that you would share with a network launching a similar initiative?  

A tip I would share is to balance developing relationships with the need to be efficient and productive. Particularly in our technology-driven world that we are living in right now, we forget the importance of taking time to have one-on-one conversations. There is immense value in meeting with partners and staff from their organization, as time and conditions allow, in order to build relationships.  

In addition to a personal connection, our partners value efficiency. Every partner is extremely busy. They have a variety of responsibilities on their plates and wear a variety of hats. Communication and meetings need to be well organized; so, we use a variety of organizational tools. For example, we use a consent agenda meeting for items that are routine. Partners are provided information ahead of time and can approve all consent items with one simple vote. The time saved is then available for members to have great discussion around more substantive issues.  


How do you see participation in the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s Network Development grant program impacting your broader health improvement efforts? 

Man Therapy is a collaborative project in which we have seen substantial success. Our data showed that most suicide deaths in the region are completed by men — over 80% each year for the last 15 years. We knew we had to do something different to reach men. As a collaborative we were able to implement a campaign around Man Therapy, an innovative online outreach approach, which balances humor with serious mental health topics. The website, attempts to break down the walls that many men may have, and the stigma related to mental health.  

Man Therapy is a national campaign that started in Colorado. We were fortunate that Michigan participated in a five-year research study called Heathy Men Michigan. The study found Man Therapy was more successful at reaching men and getting them to interact with information related to mental health than other more traditional platforms. This evidence-based program aligns with our data-driven approach. 

Men who visit the website are invited to take a “head inspection,” which is based on evidence-based screenings, but trickles in bits of humor. By interjecting humor, it encourages people to continue and relieves some of the pressure and anxiety of taking a mental health screening. It has allowed us to create partnerships with nontraditional groups such as the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and Farm Bureau. We have staffed displays at golf tournaments and use social media ads targeted directly to the working-age male population. We are hopeful that in four or five years we will look at our dashboard we will see that our suicide rate has declined.  


Do you have an example or story that illustrates the value of implementing this project with an engaged network instead of a single organization at the helm?  

I mentioned earlier that we focus on data-driven decisions. We have found great benefit to completing needs assessments collaboratively. It has been extremely effective to develop tools together and then use all the network partners to distribute and push out surveys and information. Over 700 community members participated in our recent behavioral health survey and over 1200 in our recent Community Health Survey. Individually our organizations have a limited reach. Because we are a cross-sector network, working together broadens the reach and diversity of responses. Working together on needs assessments, we also develop a common language and platform from which we set regional priorities.   


What will your network members be doing more of or differently to emerge stronger from the pandemic? 

The pandemic affected all of our member organizations. We found there was significant cross-learning, both within a certain sector and across sectors. Our local public health departments communicated regularly with each other to understand state directives and to make sure messaging was consistent in the community. There were many partners involved in the response to COVID. We had testing sites at a mental health agency and vaccination clinics utilized staff from different organizations. So, there was definitely cross-sector collaboration.  

Also, for the long-term, I believe our network and individual partners will use technology more effectively. We have come to consider hybrid meetings “a norm.”  This helps us leverage the efficiency of reduced travel time and costs for regional meetings and yet maintain the ability to build relationships through in person connections. Our partners will be better able to access and use technology comfortably when the need arises.  

The bottom line is that when presented with big or small problems working together is very effective. 

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