Establishing healthy collaborations

Developing and maintaining health sciences programs cannot be done in isolation. Western Technical College (Wisconsin) believes in community partnerships and collaboration.

In the early 1990s, Western partnered with two regional medical centers and two other local higher education institutions to ensure the healthcare employers in the region had graduates to fill health profession positions. The five organizations formed the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium. The consortium built the Health Science Center that offers state-of-the-art educational facilities for two-year, four-year and graduate students and research laboratories used by one of the medical centers.

This article comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Here are some strategies to consider when forming a partnership or collaboration of this type.

Have a commitment from senior leadership. In the 1990s, the senior leaders of each of the five founding organizations committed to the building project. All five organizations conducted fundraising activities towards their fiscal goals. The board of directors meets six times a year. Each of the five consortium partners has senior leaders (CEOs, vice presidents or presidents) serving on the board. This demonstrates organizational commitment, senior leader engagement and consortium projects alignment with the organizational goals of the individual partners.

Determine a common mission. The original mission was “To develop and implement collaborative initiatives focused toward meeting community and regional needs through enhancing health care, strengthening medical health science education, and solidifying interactive research initiatives.” The partnership has evolved over the years to be engaged in more community collaboration-building projects.

Our current mission is “Fostering collaboration for healthier communities.” The consortium now serves as a neutral convening body that tackles local issues related to nursing clinical placement, cultural competency, patient transition from acute care to long-term care, population health, external funding (via collaborative grants) and building a trauma-informed community.

Leverage fiscal resources. The Health Science Center houses a student health center used by students from two higher education institutions. Faculty offices from both institutions are co-located to foster communication and collaboration between sister programs (i.e., physical therapist and physical therapist assistant). Staff consults on equipment purchases common to their programs and share costs.

Because of the shared spaces, our occupational therapy assistant program benefits from having four dedicated labs for various functions.

Establish an equally represented operations or management team. The Building Management Team meets monthly and deals with day-to-day operational issues. This involves establishing a common scheduling process for classrooms and labs, and an equitable system for distributing costs among the partners.

The team also established and documented policies and procedures to deal with turnover in the use of offices or other space. Team representation includes three members from each partner occupying more than five percent of the building space. One representative from each partner must not work in the building. This helps to foster communication among and within organizations.

The partnership is 25 years old and although we still haven’t ironed out all the kinks, every year we learn something new and build upon our past successes.

The consortium has built upon our success using a shared facility and have broadened our mission and role within the community. The consortium is now more than just the building; it is a backbone organization that fosters and supports collaborative endeavors in our communities.

The consortium has a staff of two individuals to oversee the building operation and foster the project work. It establishes a “neutral agenda” and hosts nurse educator summits, an annual health summit and provides classroom space for a high school health academy.

The consortium has been recognized with the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Excellence Award, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Action Award, and our community has been designated as a Wisconsin Healthy Community.

Mental health is a growing issue in many communities, and because of our past record of fruitful collaborations, the consortium secured an eight-year grant focusing on developing collaborative mental health solutions for youth in our community.

In retrospect, I am quite sure the original founders of the consortium never envisioned the work being accomplished and facilitated today. In addition to the five original partners, the consortium has added the superintendent of the local school district and the county health department director to our Consortium Board.

About the Author

Diane Osterhaus Neefe
is dean of general studies and former dean of health and public safety at Western Technical College in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and is president of the National Network of Health Career Programs in Two Year Colleges.