Ochsner, Lourdes seek community input on Acadiana’s health challenges

The entrance to a red brick building with white awnings is surrounded by trees.
The opening of the Ochsner Lafayette Community Health Clinic was partly driven by responses to the 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment, according to an Ochsner representative. Jamie Orillion

Serving a nine-parish area spanning from St. Mary to Evangeline Parish, Acadiana’s two main hospital groups, Ochsner and Lourdes, have a lot of ground to cover. A current survey seeks input from the community on the kinds of services that are missing and is open to public participation until May 20.

Every three years, non-profit hospitals are required to complete what’s called a Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) to analyze the most pressing health needs in the region they serve and develop strategies to address them.

For the second time, Ochsner and Lourdes are working together, with the assistance of United Way of Acadiana, to interview community leaders, focus groups and health care professionals, pool data and perform a community survey to meet this requirement set forth by the Internal Revenue Service in exchange for tax benefits provided to nonprofit hospitals.

“It helps us to determine those areas of focus for our hospitals to address and improve the health care outcomes in our communities,” said Karen Wyble, vice president of regional community affairs at Ochsner Lafayette General.

The result is a report highlighting the health needs of the community as well as a subsequent plan to address those health needs. “What do we need to do differently to ensure that they’re getting the care they need?” Wyble said of the question at the center of the effort.

Wyble said the results of the assessment help the hospital system focus on specific grants targeting the gaps identified by interviewees and survey respondents as well as guide program expansions.

For example, she noted, the need for easier access to care identified in the most recent assessment performed in 2021 contributed to the hospital system’s decision to open a community clinic in Freetown-Port Rico that focuses on providing primary and specialty care services to low-income patients.

A 2017 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 57% of physicians in Louisiana were accepting new Medicaid patients, one of the lowest rates in the country.

The clinic, which is housed in the former St. Ann’s Infirmary, opened in 2022, and according to Ochsner has seen 3,231 visits this year, with over 70% of patients enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare.

Wyble also pointed to grants used to combat opioid use disorder in rural areas and provide free cervical cancer screenings and mammograms. While opioid use, cervical cancer or breast cancer weren’t specifically identified as pressing issues in focus groups or surveys as part of the 2021 health assessment, health data analyzed as part of the assessment showed higher rates of cervical and breast cancer in parts of the service area, compared with the rest of the state and the nation.

For United Way, which is facilitating the joint effort for the second time, the results of the survey guide its grant-seeking efforts and program design, said Marissa Winters, director of community impact. United Way of Acadiana is a nonprofit that provides and facilitates a range of services, from free tax-prep and financial literacy to early childhood education and grant programs for teachers, smaller nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

“I reference the data all the time,” Winters said, noting that — just like the hospitals — her organization uses the assessments to steer its efforts towards the areas of greatest need identified by community members. United Way also receives compensation from the hospitals for its role in facilitating the effort, similar to a consultancy firm.

Winters said the collaboration between the hospitals, rather than each hospital doing its own assessment, as is still commonplace elsewhere, makes for a more comprehensive review of the community’s needs.

“Bringing together both hospital systems is a huge benefit,” Winters said. The participation of United Way, she noted, allows the effort to take a more in-depth look. “With United Way leading a lot of the community facilitation, that’s something that maybe hospital staff can’t do on a normal everyday basis,” Winters said. “They’re confined within the hospital walls sometimes.”

Both Ochsner and United Way of Acadiana are hoping to spread their approach to other regions of the state, and are working with their local offices and counterparts in New Orleans and Shreveport to help craft similar collaborations there.

“These are all our families, right?” Wyble said of the two hospital systems involved in the local joint assessment. “It’s not about one healthcare system versus another.” Locally, the collaboration has led to other joint projects, like the Resources for Developing Minds program, an initiative that provides new parents with toolkits to support their children’s mental development.

One of the biggest challenges of the assessment, Wyble noted, has been to get a broad and diverse slice of the community to respond to the surveys, something the partners hope to address through focus groups, like a group made up of people experiencing homelessness to be convened at St. Joseph Diner.

“We’re really taking a deep dive to ensure we’ve heard everybody to the best that we can,” Wyble said of this year’s effort.

Once the assessment is complete and the report summarizing it has been approved by the various hospital boards involved, the next step will be to draft an implementation plan and present that plan to the public.

“That’s what I’m really excited about, the implementation part,” said United Way CEO Heather Blanchard. “That’s where it becomes more of a community document, not just something for the hospitals.”

Those who want to make their voice heard can participate in the open community survey, which is still accepting responses until Monday, May 20.