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Ask the AHD Expert: Broadening Relationships within an AHD Partnership

Date: 9/18/2018 8:30 AM

Related Categories: Council on Linkages, Workforce Development

Topic: Council on Linkages, Workforce Development

Tag: Academic Health Department, Academic Health Department Learning Community, Council on Linkages, Email Newsletter Content, Partnerships, PHF E-News, Workforce Development

Bill Keck, MD, MPH, Chair, Academic Health Department Learning Community; Chair, Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice; Professor Emeritus, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Northeast Ohio Medical University
Navigating the personalities and relationships involved in academic health department (AHD) partnerships – formal partnerships between health departments and academic institutions – can be complex, particularly as more people become involved in the work of the partnership. How can we best go about expanding partnerships while maintaining the relationships that already exist? This seventh column in the Ask the AHD Expert series considers ways to approach broadening relationships within an AHD partnership.
Question: Our health department currently has a close working relationship with two staff members at our local state college. After attending the AHD session at this year’s Public Health Improvement Training, I was inspired to broaden our relationship with the college, engaging more staff and students. Can you suggest a tactful way to go about this? I want to ensure that our current relationship is not devalued, but I also see a lot of additional potential for partnership with the college in other departments.
Kudos to you for considering ways to continue to advance your AHD partnership – and for going about it in a thoughtful way. Your desire to not jeopardize your current relationships speaks to the value of these partnerships for you and your organization.
You mention having a good working relationship with two staff members at the college, which can provide a great foundation for enhancing these efforts. As a starting point, you might share your excitement for expanding your health department’s connections with the college and engage your existing partners in a discussion of how to proceed. Obviously all of you see value in working together – share with your partners the potential you see in continuing to build on the collaboration you as a team have been able to develop and invite their ideas of how you can spread the enthusiasm for collaboration and amplify what your organizations can accomplish working together. Are they also interested in expanding the college’s role? Are there other individuals or areas of expertise in the health department that they would like to engage? What opportunities do they see that could benefit from collaboration? What else would they like to achieve by partnering? AHD partnerships should benefit all organizations involved; explore what opportunities might exist and work together to identify ways to ensure this is a win-win situation for both of your organizations.
In posing this discussion, it may also be useful to reassure your current partners that you have no intention of diminishing your relationship with them – your desire to expand the partnership stems from experiencing how valuable it is to work with them – and ask for their advice on how to broaden your health department’s academic contacts and connections. They may be able to help you determine ways to navigate expanding the relationship, provide perspective on approaches that might work well, or suggest people to engage. Finding ways to involve others that would benefit your current partners can help contribute to creating a win-win situation, and approaching this as a team with aligned goals for expanding the partnership could help to solidify your connection. 
Many factors may play into deciding whether to broach this subject and how you might approach doing that. In making this decision in any specific situation, it may be helpful to consider:
  • The personalities and relationships involved in the partnership, potentially including those of the staff members currently working together through the AHD partnership, those who you may wish to involve, and those who lead the organizations that are partnering
  • The working relationship already in place between the organizations and their staff, how strong that relationship is, and the level of trust between the individuals involved
  • Your organization’s and your partner organization’s interests and how well aligned they are
  • What opportunities exist with the other organization that you would like to pursue
  • The disciplines within the college that you might be interested in involving in the partnership, how many disciplines you’d like to engage, and whether the disciplines have existing relationships and work together in some way at the college
  • The benefits you see for your organization and for your partner organization in expanding the partnership
  • The resources your organization and your partner organization have to support an expanded partnership
  • How you will staff and fund expanded partnership activities
  • What you hope to accomplish by expanding the partnership
While not a comprehensive list, giving some thought to these and other factors prior to initiating a discussion about expanding your partnership could help offer some useful perspective and position you to better articulate the value you see in growing your collaboration.
Navigating these partnerships is complex, particularly when there are numerous personalities and relationships involved. At the very least, you will want to preserve the relationships that are in place now. In a best case scenario, this may be an opportunity to work toward a more comprehensive collaboration that maximizes the benefits for both organizations and strengthens efforts to improve community health.
Have ideas of your own for how to approach what could be a delicate subject within an AHD partnership? Successful strategies you’ve used in growing your AHD partnership? I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences with others using the Comments section below, by connecting with the AHD Learning Community, or by emailing Kathleen Amos at
Ask the AHD Expert is a quarterly column of the Academic Health Department Learning Community. Have a question for our AHD experts? Submit your question today by email to for an opportunity to be featured in next quarter’s column! For more information about the AHD Learning Community or the Ask the AHD Expert column, please visit or contact Kathleen Amos at


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