In a report released this week, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation highlights the accomplishments of a collaborative effort to improve the health of underserved populations through the training and use of community health workers, titled Community health workers in Minnesota: Bridging barriers, expanding access, improving health.
Community health workers (CHWs) are bicultural and often bilingual members of the communities they serve. They work in a variety of settings, including health clinics, mental health centers, public health departments, mutual assistance associations that work directly with recent immigrants and refugees, and other community organizations and agencies that provide counseling, advocacy and health education. CHWs help patients obtain health coverage, make medical appointments and follow through on treatment recommendations. They also provide outreach, referral and education about specific health issues such as diabetes or teenage pregnancy.
Community health workers provide many services, including:
- Improve access to care
- Promote healthy behaviors
- Facilitate effective management of chronic health conditions
- Increase the cultural competence of health care providers and organizations
- Bring greater diversity to the health care workforce
- Lower system costs
- Help reduce health disparities for vulnerable populations
"Our Foundation has invested more than $3.3 million in the community health worker project through 41 grants," said Patrick Geraghty, chair of the Foundation board of directors and president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. "We're proud to have been a leader in launching the community health worker movement, because many in our state, particularly immigrants and refugees, are new to our complex health care system, and CHWs help them learn how to successfully navigate it."
"Minnesota has one of the most robust community health worker programs in the nation," said Courtney Lawson, program manager at Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association in Rochester. "CHWs can be especially effective in rural and other medically underserved settings, where health organizations are challenged by the cultural and linguistic needs of their patients and where physicians and other health care providers are in short supply. Statewide and nationwide, CHWs can augment the medical team and are promising additions to the emerging medical home concept."
The report details the many accomplishments that have been achieved in our state in the past decade. Highlights include:
- The development of a formal training curriculum offered by the state's community college system so that more people are trained and qualified to help
- The passage of legislation authorizing Medical Assistance payment for specific services provided by trained and supervised community health workers, increasing sustainability of the financing
- Documented cost savings. One study found that a CHW outreach program serving Medicaid patients with diabetes resulted in a 40 percent decline in emergency room visits, average savings of $2,245 per patient and improved quality of life
- The development of action steps that education, health, government, business and nonprofit organizations can take to help increase the use of CHWs, based on lessons learned in the first decade
"CHWs are a critical part of the medical team," said Paul Targonski, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic. "By helping their clients access preventive services and guiding them to care in appropriate settings, CHWs can help them become aware of health conditions early, when treatment is most effective."
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation