St. Charles combats loneliness, social isolation with community benefit investments

By Hospital Association of Oregon staff

St. Charles Health System is focusing on reducing feelings of loneliness and social isolation while fostering a sense of belonging in the communities it serves. To achieve that goal, the health system is directing community benefit grants to local partners that provide opportunities for people to build connections that improve both mental and physical health.  

Clinical and community benefit leaders at the health system say they were aware that loneliness and social isolation posed a significant health issue before COVID, but the pandemic escalated the disconnect people felt. “With COVID, the impact was larger and a lot more people felt it,” said Carlos Salcedo, St. Charles’ manager of community partnerships. 

Then St. Charles completed its 2023-2025 Community Health Needs Assessment, which helps hospitals know where to direct their community benefit investments.  

“During that process we kept coming back to this feeling that people weren’t connected to the communities they were living in,” Salcedo said. “People lack a sense of belonging.” 

Awareness of loneliness and social isolation as a health risk is growing and extends far beyond Central Oregon. Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, underscored the gravity of the loneliness and social isolation epidemic, labeling it as a largely overlooked public health crisis.  Murthy said the impacts extend to both mental and physical health—statistically, the risk to physical health is akin to that of a habitual smoker. 

Salcedo said some of the social isolation identified in Central Oregon is a function of geography. “We are a rural community, so there’s the distance aspect, but also the issue of resources,” he said.  

St. Charles issued its first round of grants to local organizations in early 2024 with more to come, and the effort has resonated in the community. “Volunteers are calling to ask how they can help,” Salcedo said. Among the community partners are the Council on Aging of Central Oregon, SriPonya (which is working on a program in Warm Springs), the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Crook County Library.  

Salcedo says he’s hopeful the effort will continue to raise awareness about the need to combat social isolation. “It really resonates with people,” he said. “Hopefully this gets embedded in how we talk about health and our communities.”