The novel coronavirus has painfully demonstrated the connection between community health and business performance. As community health fails, so, too, does business success. As both the economy and communities begin to emerge and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, leveraging this symbiotic relationship between businesses and communities will be important to recovery and future success.

Businesses can invest in health and well-being at a number of different levels, both in response to COVID-19, and in general. Many businesses, understanding the vital role of a healthy workforce, invest in individual or family health through employee wellness, health benefits, etc. Businesses also invest in broader community health or population health improvement in the communities in which they operate through philanthropic investments and other initiatives.

Over the last several years, AcademyHealth has supported the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in its efforts to better understand the business case for investing in health and well-being. While significant research to date has examined investments in employee wellness, much less research has examined private-sector investment in community health. Under RWJF’s Engaging Businesses for Health research program, managed by AcademyHealth, researchers found that the health and well-being of the community in which businesses operate affect employee and business performance. For example, poor community health resulted in worse economic outcomes in U.S. metro areas, higher emergency department utilization among employees, and poor job performance in manufacturing companies. Megan McHugh and colleagues, of Northwestern University, elaborated on the impact of community health on workers in manufacturing companies in the Journal of Community Health, writing: “Even when an employer implements health-promoting strategies at the worksite, many employees then go home to unhealthy neighborhoods, and the workplace progress is compromised.”

The rationale for business investment in community health is intuitive. Businesses play an important role in influencing the health of individuals and communities, and conversely, business advantage is attained when families and communities are healthy and strong. There is a long precedent for non-profit institutions investing in their communities, particularly “anchor institutions,” like universities and hospitals (colloquially “Eds and Meds”), that are seen as pillars of their communities for their contributions to economic growth, employment, philanthropic investments, etc. Given that anchor institutions are deeply rooted in their communities, they are often among the first tapped, leveraged, and/or mobilized to address community health challenges.

The Anchor Institutions Task Force (AITF) recently released an inventory of the ways in which anchor institutions are stepping in to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including philanthropic support, addressing equity concerns, enhancing hospital capacity, information sharing etc. While many of the anchor institutions referenced in the inventory are the “Eds and Meds” one might expect, other examples include for-profit businesses who might also be considered “anchors” in their respective communities.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently awarded five grants to researchers to conduct studies to better understand why and how for-profit business serve as anchors in their communities. Under this new program, Understanding and Supporting Anchor Businesses to Build a Culture of Health, supported by AcademyHealth, several organizations are conducting studies to examine the ways that for-profit businesses advance health and well-being in the communities where they are located. For example, Megan McHugh sought to identify anchor businesses in the United States and describe the characteristics of these companies as well as characteristics of the communities in which they operate. She and her colleagues found over 2,500 anchor businesses, located in almost one quarter of all small- and mid-size communities. They also found that, on average, communities with an anchor business were less economically distressed than communities without an anchor business.

Other research being conducted includes better understanding the effects of anchor businesses as well as their motivations for community investment. Howard Wial and Peter Eberhardt, of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, are examining the impacts, strategies, and motivations of anchor businesses in terms of job growth, gentrification, and health outcomes in their communities. Harry Liu and Catherine Cohen, of RAND, are trying to understand why some for-profit companies have invested in community development where others have not.

The final area of research being conducted is looking into two notable sectors: for-profit hospitals and oil and gas companies. Do businesses in these sectors operate like typical “anchors,” and if so, what are their motivations and incentives? Cory Cronin and Berkeley Franz, of Ohio University, are studying for-profit hospitals to determine whether they consider themselves “anchor businesses” in the same way that nonprofit hospitals are considered anchors. They’ll also examine how these for-profit hospitals are perceived by their local communities. Chris Calitz and Chris Shay, of the American Heart Association, will focus on a business coalition of 20 for-profit energy companies that make up the Permian Strategic Partnership (PSP) to understand the motivations behind the PSP and how the PSP is perceived by the community.

AcademyHealth will be working with these five organizations as they conduct their studies and release their findings over the next year.


Megan Collado, M.P.H.

Senior Director - AcademyHealth

Megan Collado is a Senior Director at AcademyHealth, where she manages a number of Robert Wood Johnson Foundat... Read Bio

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