It makes a difference whether a person has stable housing, a safe neighborhood to live in, access to healthy food, and people she can turn to for help. It also matters whether a person understands the doctor’s instructions, can get to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, or can adapt her cooking to eat a healthier diet.
That means to improve health, there must be strong and meaningful links between the clinical care system and the communities where people live.
One important way to do that is through community health workers – trusted members of patients’ communities who help to identify and address barriers to being as healthy as possible. A community health worker can:
- Help a mom learn special home cleaning techniques that can minimize triggers for her child’s asthma
- Assist a diabetes patient in learning how to improve his diet and choose healthy foods at the supermarket
- Ensure that a patient who doesn’t speak English can understand a doctor’s recommendations
- Help patients who frequently go to the emergency department get connected to a primary care provider and navigate the health care system
- Connect patients with other services – such as housing, employment, and social services – that can improve their well-being
- Help a patient’s health care providers understand the challenges she faces in taking care of her health
Research has shown that community health workers can improve health outcomes and save money in the health care system. But their services are largely paid for through grants or other temporary sources of funding, making their place in the health care system precarious. One of our goals is to ensure that community health workers are better integrated into the health care system so their roles can be sustained.
We are also working to increase awareness and promote uptake of best practices used in the health care system to address the factors outside medical care that affect people’s health.