large group of people, diverse

A positive recommendation has value, especially when coming from a credible source in the community. Community health workers (CHWs) can be relied on to guide those struggling to manage a healthcare issue to helpful services and support.   

“Community health workers play an important role in helping patients manage their health conditions and prevent future health problems,” explained Ben Tiensvold, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Community Health Worker Collaborative of South Dakota (CHWSD). “CHWs are able to advocate for their patients and help them navigate both health and social services programs.” 

The COVID-19 health emergency has seen the direct benefit of CHWs as they’ve stepped in to assist with a variety of efforts including contact tracing.  Why States May Fall Short in Contact Tracing, a recent article by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) stated, “Community health workers have a strong scientific and economic evidence base behind them, including the proven ability to save Medicaid $4,200 per beneficiary. If scaled to even 15 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries, this would save US taxpayers $47 billion per year.” 

Despite the evidence of positive impact on health outcomes and healthcare costs, the profession has had limited growth in South Dakota. The Bureau of Labor community health worker job classification map dated for May 2017 shows surrounding states employing at least 70 CHWs while South Dakota exhibits a glaring void. Tribal health in South Dakota has effectively employed community health representatives (CHRs) for many years, but broader expansion within the state for CHWs has been limited.   

Vicki Palmreuter, program manager for the South Dakota Foundation for Medical Care, shares, “The role of the CHW in connecting patients with community-based organizations and services is critical in the successful implementation of evidence-based health programming. Acting as a trusted advisor and advocate, the CHW is uniquely positioned to help patients navigate resources to support their health improvement journey.” 

As the Coordinator of the South Dakota Diabetes Coalition, Tiensvold participated in the development of the South Dakota Community Health Worker Summary and Recommendations which contributed to the development of the Community Health Worker Collaborative of South Dakota. Throughout the next four years the Collaborative will focus on expanding the CHW workforce by developing five key areas: Awareness, Training, Workforce Development, Reimbursement, and Career Ladder/Lattice.  Awareness efforts to date include a series of informational webinars.  

A network of CHWs is especially valuable for those managing chronic diseases: the leading cause of death and disability and a key reason for the $3.5 trillion in annual healthcare costs in America.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 60 percent of adults have a chronic disease and 40 percent have two or more.  As a high-risk group for COVID-19, support and routine care has become more important and more difficult.  

“COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to implement alternative modes of reaching those with chronic conditions.  Dangers of exposure limit face-to-face interactions, but those managing chronic disease are also more vulnerable to the effects of social isolation and loneliness,” Palmreuter commented.  “CHWs are engaging community members in chronic disease self-management programming by providing key program infrastructure such as virtual workshop moderation, technical support, leader training, participant orientation and facilitation.” 

Finding the right words for COVID-19 conversations can be challenging.  Vital Talk has produced the COVID-Ready Communication Playbook with practical, crowd-sourced advice about how to tackle difficult topics from clinicians on the front lines of COVID-19. The “CALMER” acronym outlined in this guide will help healthcare providers structure talks about goals of care with patients and families. This resource is available in 23 languages.

“In other states, CHWs have had huge successes in many different areas,” Tiensvold added. “Expanding the CHW workforce in South Dakota is important as there are many who can benefit from the services they provide.”