By Renee Whiskey-LaLanne, MPH, MCHES, AE-C , Director of Community Partnerships, Community Health Systems Lab, Department of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine
HEALTH - In communities across the world there are naturally occurring networks of socially connected people that form. Over time, an individual or local group begins to emerge who others seek and trust for information when required. These networks are usually birthed from shared understanding, shared lived experience and endorsement of that person or organization by others who influential community members trust.
Think of your healthcare team and imagine knowing that someone intimately involved in your care is just that, a trusted member of the community who has a unique understanding and appreciation of your individual challenges. Someone whose resourcefulness and training can connect you to the services you most need and potentially can resolve issues that you didn’t realize you even had. That is a Community Health Worker!
Known by many titles, Community Health Workers (CHWs) are local, trusted experts whose guidance often span challenges relevant to what we call social determinants of health – the conditions that people are born into, work and live in like housing, transportation and education, which in turn impact health outcomes.
Maybe you need to know where you can get help with money to pay for food or medicine; where to find a safe, stable or affordable place to live; or where to find employment. These all represent the types of challenges that CHWs have experience with. Serving on the frontlines of health and social service agencies, the role of these people are to help address challenges in accessing needed resources, often filling a vital information void, and one that other sectors have limited time or expertise to address.
Although there is a 300 year history of CHW existence across the globe, the resurgence of this role and recognition of the value of these individuals in major urban cities like New York, highlights how effective CHWs are at bridging gaps between health and social services.
While New York consists of resource rich communities, many New Yorkers, particularly here in the Bronx, face significant barriers in accessing and sustaining these resources. While COVID-19 placed a spotlight on many of the challenges certain members of our community face like accessing healthy food, paying bills like rent and utilities, maintaining employment, etc., these challenges were present before March 2020 and have only intensified over the past two years.
From April through October 2020, city surveys revealed that 70% of New Yorkers’ ability to get food were impacted by increased prices. 45% of New Yorkers reported less income and 20% reported inability to buy groceries due to lack of money. As we have begun to stabilize from the devastating effects of COVID-19, some of the safety net programs put in place to help communities adjust, like the eviction moratorium, have expired, leaving New Yorkers to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize their already limited budgets.
Closer to home, Montefiore has published research on known challenges like inadequate healthcare transportation, which we found is strongly associated with chronic health conditions like diabetes.
While more work needs to be done to address each of the most pressing issues in our community, the first step is informing people through articles like these that CHWs exist and are here to help. As a former CHW myself, there is no work that is more significant than advocating for our community, helping people feel empowered and giving voices to some who seldom feel heard.
As more CHWs become present throughout our healthcare system, we’ll have more individuals who are specifically trained to navigate the healthcare system, people who speak the many languages heard throughout our vibrant community – and people who have in most cases have their own experience navigating some of these same situations.
One step at a time, our mission is to ensure Bronx residents understand what’s available to them. I look forward to sharing more in the near future.