A study by Ohio University professors Cory Cronin and Berkeley Franz found that for-profit hospitals were more likely than nonprofit and public hospitals to be in communities with greater economic and health needs. These findings mean that for-profit hospitals are often located in communities with lower rates of health insurance, more unemployment and poorer health outcomes. 

The study was funded through a national grant, titled “Understanding For-Profit Hospitals as Community Anchors: Does a Corporate Mission Detract from a Social Responsibility to Contribute to Community Health,” by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For the study, Cronin, an associate professor in OHIO’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, and Franz, an associate professor in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Endowed Faculty Fellow in Population Health Science, explored where for-profit hospitals were located in the United States and the social and economic needs in these communities.

“Our goal was to understand the potential for these hospitals, in particular, to serve as anchor institutions, which contribute to economic development and improve community health in their communities,” Franz explained.

Cronin and Franz paired national hospital data from the American Hospital Association Annual Survey with community health and economic data at the county level to assess differences in the counties for-profit hospitals serve. 

“Hospitals exist both as businesses and as organizations that provide essential services to their communities,” Cronin said. “I think it is very important to understand as much as possible how these factors interact, particularly when a hospital establishes itself as a for-profit endeavor. Specifically, our hope is that by adding to this knowledge base, we can provide community leaders and policymakers important information in how they engage with hospitals and, in turn, better serve their communities.”

Cronin and Franz have collaborated over the last several years to understand the potential for hospitals to address social and economic factors that serve as upstream causes of health outcomes in the U.S. Most of their work, however, has focused on nonprofit hospitals, which are required to undertake and report on initiatives that advance the community as part of the Affordable Care Act.

For-profit hospitals are not obligated to report community benefits, meaning for-profit hospitals, along with other for-profit businesses, have been understudied in terms of whether they act as “anchors” improving the health of communities around them.

“This research is important because it demonstrates that for-profit hospitals have strong potential to serve as anchor institutions if they were to focus on economic and population health investments,” Franz said. “Although they are not legally required to do so, unlike their nonprofit hospital counterparts, these actions would likely have an outsized impact on population health. We believe that these findings warrant new policy approaches to encourage population health investments by this growing group of hospitals in the U.S.”

Full study details and findings are available in Preventive Medicine Reports.