Community Health Workers bridge health care gap
In founding the NHRMC Novant Health Community Health Worker program, a free public service within New Hanover County, the manager of Community Engagement SARAH ARTHUR strives to better assist the most vulnerable populations throughout the region.
Started in 2020 through a grant from the N.C. Office of Rural Health, the CHW program “has touched the lives of over 300 patients,” says Arthur. “Building trust and community connection are at the core of our program model. Not only are we building trust with the community, but we’re also building trust with the patient.”
And by hiring team members from the most vulnerable populations, says Arthur, the CHW program strengthens relationships and patient advocacy.
“The healthcare system can be confusing for most people, and more stressful when you’re not feeling your best or have a language barrier, or you’re constantly in crisis mode because you don’t have a stable place to live,” she explains. In accompanying patients to the doctor’s office or sitting in on home health visits, a CHW helps alleviate anxiety and confusion during times of undue stress.
Bridging the gap between health care providers and the community is like a many-limbed tree, Arthur says, and the CHW fortifies the educational branches.
“One of our greatest efforts is to educate providers,” she says. Due to a lack of steady income, she explains, when faced with a choice between medicine or food, many patients will forego their medications: “The doctors may view their actions as noncompliance,” she explains, “when nothing could be further from the truth.”
In one instance, a patient was losing his sight due to complications from his diabetes; unfortunately, his physician didn’t know the patient couldn’t afford his insulin. This led to missed appointments and ultimate blindness in one eye. With the help of a CHW, says Arthur, the patient was able to get connected to services for the blind, transportation to his doctor’s appointments, disability benefits, and his needed medications.
“We also worked with a patient diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease,” says Arthur. “His physician’s office had no idea he had no family support in the area, and he was open only with his CHW about his feelings of grief and loss as his disease progressed, and he lost his independence.” In this case, the CHW was able to assist with health care power of attorney paperwork, finding a Parkinson’s support group, and future planning support.
As boots on the ground, a typical workday for a CHW involves resource navigation, home visits, and being another set of eyes and ears at appointments; it can also involve emotional support services, researching benefits, and juggling paperwork. TERRY STALLINGS, an area CHW says “a community health worker can be looked upon as a social worker on steroids!”
For Stallings, it’s the community engagement piece that most resonates. The work greatly impacts people, she says, especially the elderly. “With so many community members unaware of services available to them, many of our elderly members are left behind and forgotten,” says Stallings. “Providing resources to the seasoned members of our community has greatly improved their quality of life and overall health.”
When community engagement draws from various backgrounds and cultures, the buy-in becomes greater, as do the positive results. “The CHW program elevates health equity in our community,” says Stallings.
To view more of photographer Terah Hoobler’s work, go to terahhoobler.com.
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