November 4, 2015

Making a down payment on health by creating social

There’s no debating it. Large corporations and organizations have significant power and influence in our society — whether by virtue of the size of their workforce, the amount of money they have to spend with their vendors, or through the net value of the goods and services they offer. They can use their power and influence to affect the world around them, and more directly, the well-being of the communities in which they operate.

Tyler Norris, vice president of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente, explains how the organization is actively pursuing a values and mission-driven approach to both its operations and its investments in order to improve health.

We spoke to him recently about how Kaiser Permanente is focusing its resources on the total health of its members and communities.

Kaiser Permanente leaders often use the term “total health” to describe the organization’s approach to health and well-being and how it lives out its organizational mission. How do you define total health?

At Kaiser Permanente, we believe that it’s important to look at what improves health from every angle.

We start with our commitment to the health of individuals and families — not just their physical health, but their total well-being in mind, body and spirit. This means caring for the total health of an individual and family, the whole person, in all the dimensions of their lives.

Nice looking man in a sports jacket smiling with a city in the background. The view is from an upper floor in a high-rise building.
Tyler Norris, vice president of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente

We also know the health of the community where our members live affects their total health more than clinical services alone. So we are committed to ensuring access to the full array of community resources that undergird health in the first place — healthy practices in schools and workplaces, access to healthy fresh affordable foods, safe places to be active, environments that reduce isolation, increase human connection, and sense of belonging.

Our commitment to community includes, but goes beyond charity care and coverage, grant making, research and education. For Kaiser Permanente, being true to our mission means we need to use all our resources and assets to support healthy people in healthy places. Our ability to impact individual and population health is not complete if we don’t also ensure that all our operations are rooted in creating a more just, equitable and thriving society. So we work to bring our entire enterprise to meet the aspirations, needs and abilities of our members and patients.

You often refer to the many factors outside of medical care that impact our health. Can you elaborate?

Sixty percent of what creates health has to do with the interplay between our socio-economic and community environments and lifestyle behaviors. The big factors include eating healthier, moving more, cutting tobacco and moderating alcohol. Medical care produces only 10 percent of what creates health.

So if we want to make people healthy, we can provide world-class care, but we also have to invest in what creates health in the first place, such as access to healthy food and beverage, safe home and community environments, economic opportunity, education and retraining, etc.

How is Kaiser Permanente investing all its assets and resources for social impact?

We’ve learned that to have a population-level health impact, we need to go all-in with everything we have: our living-wage payroll; our purchasing power; the design and powering of our facilities; the community benefit dollars via grants, research and education; our investment portfolio; our government relations capabilities, as well as the quality of our medical care services. We are working to drive health at every touchpoint.

Kaiser Permanente has a very large footprint as a non-profit health system. We operate 38 hospitals and over 600 care facilities across the country, have 20,000 physicians, and operating revenues of $60 billion. So we have a lot of opportunity to influence the health of the communities in which we operate. As a mission-driven health system with an incentive structure centered around getting and keeping people healthy — we work to apply all we have and are, for good. For us, this is far more than narrow notions of creating ‘shared value’ or Corporate Social Responsibility strategy at the margin.

What does this approach to total health impact investing look like?

Earlier this year we signed a deal to invest nearly a billion dollars in renewable energy — wind and solar — a deal that will meet 50 percent of our total energy use in California. We want to reduce our use of carbon-centered energy that pollutes the environment, contributes to climate change, and can trigger diseases ranging from asthma to certain cancers. Our renewable energy investment will support a healthier environment and create green, local, living wage jobs at home.

We’ve also invested nearly $1.5 billion of procurement spending in women and minority-owned businesses, and were the first health care organization to cross the $1 billion mark. We are seeking to use our procurement power to drive the local economy, because we know a vibrant local economy supports job creation and the health of people in that economy.

Another way that we can invest strategically is through our food procurement and the work we’re doing to create better access to healthy food. In several of our communities, we’re actively partnering with local governments and school districts, university systems, and other hospitals and health care organizations (including our competitors) to create a unified and increased market demand for healthier, sustainably produced food.

So the momentum around total health as a social impact strategy at Kaiser Permanente is under way. What’s next?

We’re doing a lot, but there’s so much more we can we can do. And despite our size and reach, Kaiser Permanente can’t do it alone. We are engaging and bringing together other like-minded business and social entrepreneurs, investors, grassroots and national organizations who want to have a similar, positive impact on society through their operations and the investments that they are making. In order to do that, and to scale our impact, we are creating ever more opportunities for partnerships and work across all sectors of society to make longer-term investments in health.

This is not a ‘project’ for us at Kaiser Permanente — it’s our ethos. It’s who we are and how we roll!


Norris spoke about Kaiser Permanente’s Total Health strategy for health and social impact at the recent SOCAP 2015 conference.