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September 6, 2018

Community Health Workers: Empowering others to take control of their health

by Staff, Douglas County Health Department

They may not be formal health educators or registered nurses. They don’t necessarily devote years to pursuing a medical degree or spend all day at a hospital. However, Community Health Workers (CHWs) are making a huge impact empowering individuals toward better health outcomes in Douglas County.

Your liaison to navigating healthcare

A CHW acts as a bridge between individuals in the community and their healthcare and/or social services. They are knowledgeable and trusted people on the front lines who typically come from the communities they serve or have a remarkably close understanding of that community.

They provide advocacy, bridge cultural and linguistic barriers, expand access to coverage and care, improve health outcomes and provide information and education to help community members improve their lifestyle.

The CHW is a critical link in connecting the community members to the appropriate healthcare resources they need and gives the members of their community a “voice.”

“What we have found is that organizations tend to find their best Community Health Workers not by posting a job, but through those that are volunteering their time,” said Kerry Kernen, Douglas County Health Department (DCHD) Division Chief for Community Health and Nutrition Services.

Rather than seeking applicants online, employers usually discover CHWs by reaching out to volunteers in soup kitchens, homeless shelters or health fairs — the people with a heart for service and a desire to help their neighbor. Some of the CHWs might even work a full-time or part-time job, or they may be a stay at home parent.

For most CHWs, no two work days are the same. Whether they work in a specific neighborhood, clinic or physician’s office, their job descriptions vary based on the unique needs and personal goals of residents, families or small groups. This could mean reminding an elderly woman to check her blood sugar one day and helping a family put more healthy foods on their table the next.

Community Health Worker 101

While Community Health Workers are by no means a new concept to our county, state, or nation, DCHD is working to not only train more CHWs, but connect them with local employers and the support they need as they work to provide the best care possible to their patients in the clinical setting.

DCHD employee leads CHW 101 training

In August, DCHD hosted the first “Community Health Worker 101” training. Over the course of four days, 15 current CHWs and their supervisors attended to offer honest feedback on the current CHW curriculum — what works well, what could be expanded on and what is missing.

Training attendee shares thoughts during group discussion

“Probably the biggest challenge for Community Health Workers is processing and navigating through the stories they are hearing from the clients they are serving and not personalizing it,” Kernen said.

CHWs tend to struggle with burn-out and “compassion fatigue.” Many times, the clients they work with are in crisis situations — they can’t make rent, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or they don’t have the transportation to reach their health care provider. On top of it all, they are juggling children, aging parents and/or job responsibilities.

During this foundational training, DCHD is taking the steps to build support systems for the CHWs themselves and their supervisors.

Taking everyone’s comments into consideration, the goal is to roll out the training on a quarterly basis.

Not to enable, but to empower

Whether a CHW works with a client for two weeks or two months, the ultimate mark of success is seeing a client take the next step toward autonomy and independence.

“The role of the Community Health Worker is not to stay connected to their clients forever,” Kernen said.

As residents begin to make positive changes in their lives and take control of their own health, CHWs are helping put an end to health disparities by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency across Douglas County.

Active Living, Clinical Care, Healthy Eating

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