Community health workers are seeing an influx of visibility and support through federal, state and local funding.
The federal Health Resources and Services Administration recently announced $226 million in grants to create a community health worker and health support worker training program in an effort to increase the number of community health workers overall.
Most other states have a statewide collective to support community health workers. In November, thanks to private funding, organizations across the state organized as The Tennessee Community Health Worker Association. Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, Siloam Health and Anthem Health are among the founding members.
“As critical members of the health care infrastructure and trusted members of the community they serve, CHWs support people in making sound lifestyle choices, link them to services, encourage good decision making, and provide accurate and needed health information to facilitate personal action,” the new association said in a statement.
Though it is hard to measure because community health work can have many different job titles, jobs for health education specialists and community health workers are predicted to grow 17 percent from 2020 to 2030, with an average of 15,100 new openings per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In a recent White House summit on preventing future pandemics, speakers emphasized the need for more health care workers.
Berenice Oliva, senior community health worker at Siloam Health’s Antioch location, looks to help clients make healthy lifestyle changes.
Oliva grew up in the area, and said she can relate to her clients as a Spanish speaker and immigrant, an important aspect of the community health work ethos. Recently, she started working with refugees, many from Afghanistan, through a translator.
“The provider knows a patient one way, and we get to know the patient in a different way,” she said. “We get to know them outside of the office and build that trust. Also, we're serving them in their own language, so the patient gets to be more open.”
Community health work has a longer history internationally than it does in the United States. Oliva’s clients recognize “promotores de salud,” the Spanish term for community health worker.
After graduating from Trevecca Nazarene University in 2020 with a degree in social work, she worked for Metro as a COVID-specific community health worker before starting at Siloam. In her current position, she enrolls patients in a three-month program to help relieve chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, depression and anxiety.
Through home visits and phone calls, her job runs the gamut from teaching people how to use a high blood pressure machine to picking healthy groceries, scheduling time to exercise, obtaining prescriptions, navigating the legal system and using health insurance. The end goal is to help people form lasting healthy lifestyle habits.
“You get to learn a lot,” she said. “You get to grow. Just get to feel that humanity. We are all connected through that humanity of wanting to do great things. … I value all of the stories and I just value them for allowing me to even be there, considering that 'she can help.'”