Community Health Workers Need to be Integrated into Health Care System

By Natasha Robinson, MPCA Communications Specialist

The health care system has to change, and it needs to include Community Health Workers. That was the loud, overarching message yesterday at the Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance’s (MiCHWA) Annual Meeting held in Lansing. The meeting’s theme was “Innovation in Action: Community Health Workers are part of Michigan’s Health Future.”

I spent most of the day Tweeting and Facebook-ing nuggets of information from the presenters (I’m in the Communications Workgroup)– most of which encouraged Community Health Workers (CHW) and their supporters to think innovatively and act strategically to make sure that Michigan’s frontline public health workers are embraced, appreciated, and respected as a dynamic profession that makes an impact in the field of health care. This is important because many of our Health Centers employ CHWs, outreach workers, promotores (and the list of titles goes on).

Dr. Hector Balcazar, regional dean of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said we should look at a comprehensive approach to advancing the CHW field and include occupational regulations, financing, workforce development, and evaluation and research. When asked about agencies believing they can hire CHWs as a less expensive labor option, he said he didn’t see why a CHW couldn’t make $70,000 a year.

“The element here is not to allow this profession to believe we’re hiring people for cheap labor. We are going to hire people with dignity and grace,” Balcazar said.

As a result of attending the meeting, I understand even more clearly how Community Health Workers are integral in reducing emergency room visits, decreasing hospital readmissions, enhancing preventive care, and improving care management, among other important benefits. Speakers throughout the day did note it is hard to quantify the exact dollar amount the health care system can save by employing CHWs, but the contribution is significant.

“When you identify a need, you have to find a solution to meet that need. Utilizing Community Health Workers is one way to meet that need,” said Dr. Erin Inman, director of Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities Department. She said that Spectrum Health has an internal training program for new hires, and paid for their CHWs to be certified at the Grand Rapids Community College.

“You get a Community Health Worker, give them tools, resources, and avenues and they will get to that patient in a way that no one else can,” Inman said.

MiCHWA has made a great deal of progress in the past year and is continuing to grow. If you’re interested in joining a workgroup, supporting efforts, have ideas about advancing the profession, or otherwise want to connect, contact MiCHWA.

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