Community Health Workers (CHW) are revolutionizing healthcare by bringing the business back to connecting individuals to the resources that they need to be well. CHWs were a big theme that came up during the launch of the Accountable Health Community. Since October 2015, Division Chief, Community Health and Nutrition Services, Kerry Kernen, MPA, MSN, RN, has led a workgroup that is making incredible strides in the advancement of this important role in the healthcare.

We sat down to talk with Kerry from the Douglas County Health Department to share more about this important effort with the Live Well Omaha coalition.

What is a Community Health Worker? How do they help individuals and families?

A CHW is a trusted, member of the community that contributes to a team-based care approach to serve families by providing supportive services such as linking them to the appropriate resources in the community. What they do is sometimes hard to capture, but they use their expertise to can help with things like food access, utility assistance or connection to other resources like transportation. If they need help with education, employment opportunities.

What is often not recognized is strength and importance of the social connection that is established and how that is key to individual health outcomes. We are making the biggest impact on that individual because through the social connectedness we can expand their capacity to manage their health.

What are the top 3 superpowers of a CHW?

  • Active Listening
  • Tenacity
  • Resourcefulness

Why did the Accountable Health Community (AHC) group want to work on CHWs as an innovation area?

CHWs bubbled up as a great idea out of the planning for an AHC. It connects to the vision for a healthier community through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health area that calls for health system integration of community resources.

Talk about the work that the CHW group has advanced this far.

We’ve been meeting for 18 months and the first order of business was to adopt a common definition for CHWs. We adopted the American Public Association with two changes– by adding the team based approach and a  health equity component. We affirmed that CHWs go by many titles and so we plugged in titles from many different jobs and placed them under the umbrella of “Community Health Worker”. That was the first order of business and helped drive the work forward. We then looked at core competencies and the third accomplishment is the curriculum update. This August, a CHW 101 training will be offered at no cost to attendees and those that complete this training will receive a certificate of completion.

How does the Douglas County Health Department know so much about CHWs?

We’ve been in this space for the past 10 – 12 years when we received grant funding, which supported the development of a curriculum. Back then, we worked with NE DHHS and trained close to 200 CHWs. It has been on the back burner since then and now we are dusting it off and re-engaging the community.

What big things are coming up?

We have a lot of big things on the horizon. We continue to have lots of conversation about licensing vs. reimbursement. We will start working on how to train and support supervisors as they work with CHWs. Also, evaluation is key; how do we evaluate the Douglas County this planning process in addition to training efforts? We will also continue to explore how are we going to measure the impact of the CHW’s work on the clinical and community side around those population health measures?

What do CHWs mean to the future of health in our community?

I believe that they are the answer to a lot of solutions for healthier residents in Douglas County. They are the lynchpin for wrapping services and supports around individuals and families. Similar to home visitation in maternal child health, which helped us better care for mothers and young families, CHWs can help us do that with the greater community.  Through this incredible workforce of natural health workers, we can address health disparities and achieve health equity across Douglas County.

Impact means bringing the workforce to scale. What does that look like?

Just like every medical office has LPNs and/or behavioral health consultants, health systems would have access to a pool of community health workers. Many health systems and FQHCs are already using CHWs in their practice, we would just want to make that a community norm.

How can volunteers or interested parties help?

Anyone interested can join the Community Health Worker workgroup. We meet during the 4th Thursday of the month from 9 – 10:30 am at the Douglas County Health Department.