When we think about a person’s health, we often think about vital signs like pulse, blood pressure and temperature.

But a new planning group working to improve the health of the Southern Tier is exploring how “vital conditions” -- such as jobs, education and access to preventive services -- also play a role in health.

The Southern Tier Alliance brings together top executives from many sectors including health care, public health, business, government and higher education. Organizers say this broad approach is critical because the health needs of the region are so complex that no one organization can solve them alone.

 “We know that a lot of really great things are happening in the Southern Tier,” said Dr. Jim Schuppert, director of health services at Corning Inc. and a Southern Tier Alliance member.  “We are looking at what is going on around health: what’s working, where are the gaps in services and where are the most opportune places to go?”

These are critical questions for residents in Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties, who face some tough health challenges. For instance, nearly 29 percent of Southern Tier adults are obese, 11 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes and 34 percent have high blood pressure.

The alliance is looking for community-wide approaches to addressing these and other health issues and will release recommendations in the coming year. The group will also identify data measures to track the region’s progress on health.

“What’s unique about this whole planning process is that it’s our first foray into how the total health ecosystem impacts the health issues patients are having,” said Anne Ruflin, Common Ground Health’s chief planning officer and chair of the Southern Tier Alliance. “Our approach asks: ‘How do you create a community that supports health?’ ”

A key goal of the collaborative process is to avoid duplication of services and to make sure that different organizations are working toward similar goals. Such coordination can help the Southern Tier region attract funding for health improvement, Schuppert said.

“State and federal grants are attracted by such collaborations across counties, and this planning effort puts us in a position to be awarded new grants,” he said.

Business spearheads the effort

Businesses are getting behind health improvement because of the high cost of health care for employees and their families, Schuppert said. Efforts to improve community health through schools and public settings can also help improve health for spouses, children and other dependents of employees, which can help to lower costs and prevent employee absenteeism.

“We need to have healthy, vibrant communities to drive business success,” Schuppert said.

It was that business perspective that led Schuppert and Sharon Miller, director of benefits and integrated health at Corning Inc., to contact Common Ground Health initially about forming the Southern Tier Alliance. Schuppert had served on the broader nine-county Regional Commission on Community Health Improvement and wanted to help bring to life some of the commission’s recommendations, such as expanding prevention efforts around health.

“In the Southern Tier there wasn’t a central group to take the recommendations and run with them,” Schuppert said.

With the launch of the Southern Tier Alliance in early 2017, that gap has been filled. The blue-ribbon convening brings together CEOs, presidents, deans, directors and other top executives—individual with enough clout to move the whole community forward around common health goals.*

“Working with this community is inspirational,” Ruflin said. “It’s a dedicated group. They have struggled together with hard problems, and they are connected to their community in a personal way. They are committed to working across sectors.”

Using data simulations to provide insights    

In October, the alliance will employ a cutting edge approach for setting health priorities, a computer modeling tool called the ReThink Health Dynamics Model, which simulates how a health system responds to changes. Designed by ReThink Health and a team of MIT-trained system modelers, it is one of many resources provided through ReThink Health Ventures, a health innovation project funded by The Fannie E. Rippel Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The model avoids a piecemeal approach to solving problems in favor of strategies focused on transforming the entire health system. Its simulation allows users to compare which approaches might improve quality, increase social equity, boost productivity and save the most lives and money.

To run the model, Common Ground Health has gathered regional data around health, housing, education and other conditions. Once the Southern Tier Alliance has mapped out the most effective strategies, the team will select measures to track the region’s progress.

By planning and tracking results, the alliance will be able to evaluate the community’s return on investment, explained Ruflin. “We need to know that we are investing wisely in a way that’s improving health and wellbeing,” she said.

* Participants in the Southern Tier Alliance are from: Arbor Housing and Development, Arnot Ogden Medical Center, Chemung County, Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene, Corning Community College, Corning Inc., CSS Workforce New York, Elmira College, Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, Finger Lakes Performing Provider System, Greater Southern Tier BOCES, Guthrie Corning Hospital, S2AY Rural Health Network, Schuyler County, Schuyler County Community Services, Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development, Schuyler Hospital, Steuben County, Steuben County Public Health, Steuben County Social Services and Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce.