Community health workers gain recognition as integral to health care

As 2016 winds down, we begin our annual blog series where Health Forward associates review highlights from our work this past year. In our ninth post, Graciela Couchonnal looks back at the integral part community health workers play in health care. Join us as we look back on 2016. 

If you work on health systems reform, you could say the past six weeks have been interesting. With a new administration heading into office, the coming months and years will be a time for renewed discussion on health care in our country.

As we look toward health care reform, we do know that some of the components of the Affordable Care Act have worked tremendously well, including an increased focus on improving the health of all populations and addressing social determinants of health through programs such as patient-centered medical homes and community health workers (CHW).

As knowledge and evidence of their value grow, CHWs are gaining greater recognition as integral members of health care teams. In fact, community health workers might just be just what the doctor ordered.

CHWs are trusted members of the community who have a close understanding of the community they serve. They serve as a link between the patient and service providers and work to improve health outcomes by improving access to services and quality of care.

Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Connect patients to needed community resources and social services.
  • Increase access to and use of preventive education, screenings and treatment services.
  • Reduce unnecessary use of urgent hospital emergency department care.
  • Improve self-management of chronic diseases.
  • Strengthen patient health literacy and culturally competent provider practices.
  • Build capacity in communities to address the underlying causes of ill health.
  • Help individuals and families obtain and maintain health insurance coverage.

This trusting relationship enables the worker to serve as a liaison between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.

Over five years ago, Health Forward was proud to support the formation of a CHW regional advisory committee established by MARC. Over time our community has benefited from the development of an education and training program and has worked on strategies to develop a sustainable CHW workforce in the region.

From that effort, the Community Health Worker Collaborative was formed in 2016. As we look ahead, the collaborative is in a strong position to leverage its existing strengths to expand regional awareness of the value of the CHW, influence state policy processes, and recruit payers by demonstrating a strong return on investment from the regional CHW initiatives.

As the number of CHW increase in our region and they become better integrated into the social services, the health care system, and as integral members of health care teams, we expect to see improvements in better care, better health and contained costs. Some of the improvements will include increased health literacy, patients’ ability to keep medical appointments and a decrease in unnecessary use of the emergency room. More importantly, experience suggests that these supportive relationships contribute to increased patient and provider satisfaction.

Health Forward board member Renee Herman said recently in a video that the CHW initiative “takes care from hospital to home and back to a patient centered medical home model and back again. What I like about this program is that they (CHW) are our hands, our ears and our eyes and so what I can’t be there to do all the time as a health care professional they are seeing and they are calling me so I’m in constant communication.”

And there has also proven to have an impressive cost savings. Dennis Dunmeyer at KC Care reports that it is keeping patients out of the emergency room and decreasing the likelihood of costly readmissions. In fact, one hospital that used two community health workers reported a cost savings of one million dollars over one year.

I’m proud that Health Forward is a supporter of this work in our region. Health care is complicated and confusing. Community health workers have walked in the same shoes as many of their patients. They speak the same language, both literally and figuratively. This effort is helping people become more aware of resources, it helps build rapport between patients and providers and it saves money. But even more it is empowering individuals to be active in their own health.  Current work that is being supported by the Health Forward validates national data that suggests that CHW have a role to play in promoting wellness and health and that recognizing and integrating community health workers in the full scope of care (social and medical), including reimbursement, can lead to improved individual/patient experience, improved care and the overall health of our community.

Read more from authors in this series:

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