Community health workers provide a bridge between patients and the medical community.
Local partner Health Care Access Now has been training and hiring community health workers to improve health equity and access in the region since 2009. The workers help clients initiate medical and behavioral health services, navigate the health insurance system, find resources for housing and food, and more.
As COVID-19 vaccines became more widely available in 2021, HCAN's community health workers began to contribute to vaccination efforts as well.
"Our biggest focus has been helping to prevent the spread of misinformation," said Sarah Mills (pictured), CEO of HCAN, which was launched in 2009 by The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, now Interact for Health. "Our network of community health workers helps people get the right information so they can make informed decisions about vaccination. And the people we serve are the most at-risk to be misled by misinformation."
Interact for Health is specifically supporting the community health workers' vaccination efforts in HCAN's Pathways program. It is one of 21 vaccine projects in the region funded by Interact for Health's $500,000 COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach.
Through Pathways, Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Janaya Trotter Bratton and Common Pleas Court Judge Wende C. Cross help connect individuals in the criminal justice system to community health workers, who then connect them to medical care, housing, substance use treatment -- and now, information about COVID-19 vaccination.
"Helping an individual access health care, including COVID-19 vaccinations, has an immediate impact and can change their life," Mills said. "But using community health workers to connect individuals to the medical community is a long-range strategy, too. If a strong network of community health workers is able to serve more people over a longer period of time ... then we'll really begin to see a reduction in health disparities."
Six clients are currently enrolled in Pathways, which emerged from the All-In Cincinnati coalition, led by Denisha Porter, All-In Executive Director and Interact for Health Board member, along with Mills and Denise Harris, HCAN's Director, Care Coordination Services.
Mills said the community health workers have been especially well equipped to provide education about COVID-19 vaccines. They can listen to and validate the concerns of clients in a non-judgmental way and share reliable information. And when a client is ready, the community health worker can help them find a vaccine location and transportation.
Since the pandemic began, HCAN's clients have logged more than 1,581 COVID-19 related services, Mills said, from help accessing personal protective equipment to testing. The work to improve vaccination rates among Pathways clients is just one aspect of this larger effort to connect people to care, both in the pandemic and every day. More information is available at HCAN's website. To refer an individual to a community health worker, complete the online form.
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