Community health workers: behind-the-scenes heroes

CHWs work to connect under-resourced communities and individuals to health care and safety net resources

September 8, 2023 12:42 am

Richmond community health worker Bre Peoples. (Courtesy of Jennifer Heffner)

By Valerie McAllister

 If your doctor said, “There are comorbidities that will affect your outcome,” many people would not understand what that means or what they need to do to change their outcome. Fortunately, Virginia has an important group of people making health care services more accessible and understandable: community health workers.

Last week was the inaugural Community Health Worker (CHW) Awareness Week, a first-ever national observance to raise awareness about the role of CHWs in the healthcare system and their impact. These caring and committed professionals – also known as outreach workers, family advocates and promotores de salud and other titles – are making a positive mark in Virginia and beyond.  

CHWs are not clinicians, nor are they social workers. They are one part advocate, one part coach, and one part teacher. Most importantly, as they are acting in all of these parts, CHWs are considered a trusted source of information. CHWs serve as invaluable connectors. They bridge the unspoken gaps between people and the services they need. CHWs are helping Virginia patients navigate the health care system.

In Virginia, about 200 certified CHWs work at free clinics, hospitals and other nonprofits. Through shared experiences of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender identity, lived experiences, and other attributes, CHWs work to connect under-resourced communities and individuals to health care and safety net resources. Their work is most effective when integrated with a broader care team and community partners.

CHWs are making a profound difference in people’s lives and our communities. Studies show that CHWs help reduce barriers to health care, improve health knowledge and chronic disease management and reduce overall medical costs.

The Institute for Public Health Innovation (IPHI) has long recognized the essential value that CHWs provide in local communities. More than $12 million in grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allowed us to support the hiring and training of 31 CHWs in the commonwealth. Having a sustainable network of CHWs across Virginia helps ensure a strong, seamless safety net of support and that care is accessible to assist communities to be at their healthiest state. The funds from this grant are going a long way toward doing just that.

I have had the pleasure of working with CHWs over the years. Their stories are moving and inspirational and highlight how a trusted advocate can improve a person’s health outcomes. 

Claudia Artero Miranda doesn’t take “no” as an answer. Whenever her clients experience a roadblock when receiving services – whether it’s troubles finding insurance, food assistance or housing – she always seeks another place to go for support. She has created action plans to help low-income families dealing with the challenges of asthma; her plans consider everything from proper medication to environmental triggers to reduce asthma attacks. Today, she mentors others CHWs through her role at IPHI. 

Breanna Burke, a CHW at the Healing Hands Health Center in Bristol, Virginia, secured new housing for a woman who had been kicked out of public housing over a domestic violence dispute. Breanna noted that finding housing for this client was like being in a foreign country without a passport. She knew of a program where a person could not be denied housing as a result of domestic circumstances. Using this loophole and her resources, Breanna got the client into public housing and helped her get needed health care resources. As the saying goes, all in a day’s work. 

In many situations, CHWs help identify the root causes of a person’s problems through candid conversations. Sometimes the cure or need is not a prescription or doctor’s visit. Clients might just need someone to point them in the right direction. 

Janice Sykes-Powell, a CHW at Pathways in Petersburg, knows the power of listening. Whether it takes hours or months of meetings, Janice takes the time to patiently sit down with clients to learn and understand their needs because she knows how basic needs like housing, food or access to a cell phone can impact a person’s quality of life and health. Working alongside her patients, she makes sure they get the services they need to live healthier lives. 

CHWs are undertaking heroic work in plain sight every day. These compassionate health advocates are helping to ensure everyone understands their health care options and can access care. In reflecting on the first CHW Awareness Week, I’m especially grateful for the work they’re accomplishing in the commonwealth and across the country. They’re people whom we should all be proud are a part of our community. 

 Valerie McAllister is a Senior Project Manager at the Institute for Public Health Innovation. She can be reached at[email protected].

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