By Tim Charles | Health Care Column

First and last breaths are taken inside hospitals every day, and from those beautiful first moments to the melancholy last, medicine has an important role along the way. Medicine makes it possible to achieve and maintain good health.

When people are healthier, they’re more likely to enjoy a better quality of life. But, what about community members who face barriers to accessing the care they need to reach those health goals? What is quality of life like for them, and what responsibility does health care have to invest in ways to help them thrive? For Mercy, the answer ties back to our mission: to care for the sick and enhance the health of the communities we serve, guided by the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy.

When four Sisters founded Mercy in 1900, they laid the foundation for an organization that would become an anchor institution in the community that, at its fundamental core, understands the necessity of access to care, particularly for the poor. Food and personal-care drives are commonplace in our organization. We fundraise for other nonprofits. We enjoy traditions, like our annual Circle the City with Mercy event alongside Sisters-founded institutions Mount Mercy University and the Catherine McAuley Center, which dedicates a day of service to a nonprofit in need.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) included a requirement in 2010 for nonprofit hospitals to conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) every three years, Mercy was ready for this welcome exploration into major health and socioeconomic issues that disproportionately affect our region.

Organized in partnership with Linn County Public Health, CHNAs have identified access to care, chronic disease and obesity concerns, along with mental health needs as a few of the areas that impact community health. They have pinpointed a clear disparity in health and health care experienced by the poor. The most recent CHNA discovered that residents have several neighborhood safety concerns, like human trafficking.

Each CHNA creates an opportunity for community partners to collaborate and begin a journey toward positive change to better care for those in our area who face social determinants that affect health. Social determinants are conditions in which a person lives, works and ages –the conditions play a role in overall health.

At Mercy, in addition to employee participation in activities that benefit the community and tie to our mission, we’ve deliberately invested in initiatives that offer a hand up to access care. Again, for us, it’s simply the right decision.

For example, our MercyCare Health Partners Clinic creates affordable, accessible care for people with complex medical conditions. By working as a team with patients, the clinic offers primary care providers, nurses, pharmacists, social workers and mental health counselors to help people overcome barriers to achieving their best health.

Our anti-human trafficking program, launched last summer, works to train hospital personnel to recognize and assist potentially trafficked victims. This creates an opportunity to safely lift victims out of these circumstances.

Another example is the important work being done to assist the community’s untrained, unpaid family caregivers at the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy. The center reduces stress for the family caregiver; keeping those families healthier through emotional support, identification of needs and connection with community resources.

So many interesting and impactful efforts are underway at Mercy to address community needs that we’ve recently assembled a Community Initiatives Report, which captures a wide snapshot of the work we’re doing beyond medicine. The report is available at mercycare.org/community, along with past and present CHNAs. I encourage any interested reader to visit the site to learn more.

Tim Charles is president and CEO of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids.