Community health workers provide outreach, connect patients to care

I’d venture to guess that each of us has experienced confusion at some point when dealing with our own health care.

Whether it’s enrolling in insurance, deciphering an explanation of benefits letter, or even knowing how to establish a medical home, figuring out the health system’s quirks can be a challenge.

That’s why the Michigan League for Public Policy and our partners are working hard to spread the word about a less-well-known but mighty force: Community health workers.

When I hear “community health worker,” the first words that come to mind are outreach and social support.

If pressed to go on, I’d add that community health workers are:

∫ Advocates

∫ Health educators

∫ Enrollment assisters

∫ Referral providers

Simply, community health workers are peers who help their clients navigate the often complex systems of health care and human services.

The term community health worker can include many other job titles, such as peer support specialist, health navigator, and community-based doula. Titles may depend upon the specific populations served or the community health worker’s primary responsibilities, but what all community health workers share is that they meet their clients where they are, often at home or in the community at resource sites such as food banks, local health departments, job centers, and health clinics.

Community health workers are frequently employed to reach those with limited or no connection to health care, such as those living in rural settings, and to offer greater support to those living with a chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure, substance use disorder, diabetes or asthma. Community health workers are experts in establishing trust and authentic relationships with their clients, in part because they often are fellow members of the community they serve.

Community health workers are frequently helpful liaisons between medical providers and clients. Community health workers, particularly those working as members of clinical care teams, facilitate communication with medical staff and ensure supportive follow-up with their clients.

Community health workers also provide information on available community resources, such as food and utility assistance programs, in order to address the non-clinical factors that contribute to or impede health. Thus, community health workers help to make care more holistic and remedy the time constraints that are so common among medical providers.

Moreover, community health workers are uniquely positioned to not only be advocates for their individual clients, but community advocates by understanding, taking inventory of, and elevating what they see as persistent community health needs. That informal data collection adds incredible value to efforts aimed at alleviating structural barriers to health and well-being.

Here in Northeast Michigan, the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region is building capacity to reinvent health, including the use of community health workers.

Their website at northernmichiganchir.org provides links to a free program that connects folks with professionals who can help with issues around health care, food, housing, transportation and more.

For more information and links to resources about community health workers and their impacts, please visit mlpp.org/community-health-workers.

Amber Bellazaire is a policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy


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