Community Health Workers (CHWs) are frontline public health workers who have a close understanding of the community they serve. Since CHWs typically reside in the community, they have the unique ability to bring information where it is needed most. They can reach community residents where they live, eat, play, work and worship. CHWs are frontline agents of change, helping to reduce health disparities in underserved communities. This trusting relationship enables them to serve as a link between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery. Simply put, community healthcare workers help connect patients with social services that can help address their healthcare needs.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst, “The Community Health Worker Boom” addresses several key elements that maximize the effectiveness of community health workers, which include: sound hiring practices, supervision and standardized workflows.

Although the idea of CHWs has been around for some time, there are two key factors that have created a greater need. First, the healthcare industry is focusing on the social determinants of health, or social factors that impact one’s ability to obtain wellness. No longer is health only about dealing with chronic illnesses and emergent issues. Instead, it’s also about the social forces – education, living environment, socioeconomic status, access to transportation – that influence the ability to be healthy. Healthcare organizations are increasingly addressing those factors in addition to physical health needs. CHWs have a breadth of knowledge that helps hospitals make these social connections.

Clinician shortages are the second factor pushing the use of CHWs. With a shrinking clinical workforce, medical facilities are trying to fill in all care gaps and are tapping CHWs to take some non-clinical work off providers’ plates.

For more information about developing a successful CHW program, refer to the University of Pennsylvania’s IMPaCT model. This model addresses topics such as recruiting/hiring, training standardization, clinical integration and more.

Great Plains QIN hosted a webinar and follow-up coaching call featuring a program that successfully integrated nontraditional workers into the team for complex care patients. The webinar, “Improving Care Coordination by Working with Super Utilizer Patients,” examined key strategies to help health systems and communities implement complex care teams to address super utilizer patients. The coaching call shared additional strategies to improve care coordination for super utilizer patients.