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Community Health Workers

By Victoria Powers, 2015 Summer Intern, Health Law and Policy Clinic

Photo via flickr from Rutgers Nursing.

While interactions with physicians and nurses have become ubiquitous, the number of community health workers in formal care capacities remains limited. However, auxiliary medical professionals, such as community health workers, have the potential to transform the current health care landscape. Throughout the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the role of community health workers as members of a care team in depth. In the last ten weeks, I’ve gained perspective on the importance of community health workers in facilitating the care of chronic conditions, such as diabetes.

Community health workers serve as a connection between medical providers and individuals with chronic conditions. Typically, they perform a number of tasks, from coordinating care with physicians to providing individuals with health management skills. By working directly with particular communities, community health workers have the potential to help achieve the “triple aim” of improving access, enhancing quality, and reducing costs associated with health care utilization.

Though I had arrived only the day prior, I found myself on a conference call with a community partner on my second day of my internship, discussing the definition of a community health worker. While our community partner’s organization had already completed the study, another organization contested the study’s definition of a community health worker, thereby threatening the study’s viability. During the call, I found myself intrigued by how one phrase – the phrase lay worker – could seemingly unravel months of research. If the research approval organization rejected the study based upon a single definition, it would deny policymakers potential knowledge relevant to enhancing the quality of medical care.

As I delved into research and learned more about community health workers, I became intrigued by their potential to enhance the structural shortcomings in our current system. In New Mexico and California, they have enhanced the clinical outcomes of individuals with diabetes, improved the satisfaction patients report with respect to medical care, and reduced the use of high cost services, such as emergency room visits. Individuals with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, gain the most benefit from community health worker initiatives, which provide opportunities for individuals to receive guidance and support related to disease management. Existing research on the use of community health workers provided me with new insights into the ways health systems can leverage auxiliary care workers to improve health outcomes for specific populations. Additionally, the opportunity to interview policymakers about developments in the field further strengthened my belief in their potential to help mitigate the effects of the primary care shortages present in many areas of the country.

As many states prepare to integrate auxiliary health workers into existing care teams, community health workers will assume increasingly important roles in the health care landscape. My internship has given me a greater appreciation for the efforts of community health workers in expanding and enhancing access to medical care for vulnerable individuals. From the experience, I have learned to appreciate the contributions of medical professionals beyond the traditional care paradigm.

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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation or Harvard Law School. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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