The Wright Medicine: A little known job to fill a growing need | Community Columns

One of the fastest-growing, most demanding roles in health care today is one that many have never heard of: the community health worker, also known as a CHW.

The role of a community health worker can be described as part social worker, part counselor and part advocate, perhaps with a sprinkling of magic, which would explain their ability to solve many of the patient’s pressing problems.

For example, community health workers are intimately familiar with the social service network in a particular geographic area and can usually help a patient secure the necessities of life — such as temporary housing, utility assistance, transportation to medical appointments, insurance, food or clothing — when the patient was previously unsure where to go. had to turn around or was stopped due to roadblocks in the system.

“This is a good first step to a career in health care,” says Amanda Vomarow, CCHW, director of patient-centered services and supervisor of community health workers at The Wright Center for Community Health. “It’s a lot like a social worker. You help people take care of their social needs so they are better able to prioritize and take care of their medical needs.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of community health workers across the U.S. will grow 12% between 2021 and 2031—much faster than the average for other occupations.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan calls for hiring 100,000 community health workers over 10 years starting in 2021 to help prevent and control COVID-19. Many of these jobs, which are increasingly valuable within the health care industry due to the pandemic and its challenges beyond, have yet to be filled in Northeast Pennsylvania, perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of the location.

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To help address the shortage, the Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center offers a 100-hour training program designed to provide key skills needed for work in community-based and inpatient settings. Community health workers generally need at least a high school diploma. They must complete the required training provided by an organization such as AHEC as well as extensive on-the-job training at a facility such as The Wright Center’s primary care practice.

The Wright Center has hired five community health workers in 2022 and three more CHW candidates are currently completing their training. These newcomers work within the patient-centered care team at The Wright Center for Community Health Kingston Practice, 2 Sharp St., Kingston; Scranton Practice, 501 S. Washington Ave., Scranton; and Mid Valley Practice, 5s. Washington Ave., Jermyn.

The training provides extensive information on how to efficiently connect patients to appropriate health care and other social and community resources that are specific to the location of the training site, whether it is a rural community like Jermyn or an urban center like Wilkes-Barre.

“We work with local food banks and shelters, public transportation and housing services and other organizations to help people in our community,” Vammaro said, adding, “People are our neighbors.”

The Wright Center and the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center have developed a strong collaborative relationship to recruit, train and certify community health workers from the region to serve local communities. Candidates are sought from the Wright Center’s five-county service area, including places like Greater Scranton, the Wilkes-Barre area and Hazleton. Bilingual professionals are especially in demand.

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These front-line public health workers help improve quality of care and break down cultural, language and other common barriers to treatment. Overall, they can improve health outcomes and save money by acting as a bridge between patients and health and social service systems. By building trust with patients, they learn about their lives, their resources and needs, and the barriers they face to being as healthy as possible.

For example, community health workers can help patients understand their health insurance options and navigate the application process, or help elderly patients secure essential medical equipment they otherwise could not afford.

Bonnie Dunleavy, CCHW, worked in health care for over 20 years before becoming a Community Health Worker in 2018.

“I started doing this before it was even a position,” he said. “I’m really a man. I have always loved helping people, trying to find solutions to their problems and making a difference in their lives.”

One of the biggest challenges both Dunleavy and Vommaro see in their patients is finding affordable housing.

“There’s such a shortage of public housing,” said Dunleavy, who uses every resource available to her to secure a safe, warm bed at night for her patients. “With the cost of rent, inflationary costs, more and more people are finding themselves evicted or they’re choosing to live in their cars.”

Most people facing this dilemma will try to live with family or friends for a while, jumping from house to house, Dunleavy says. Others go to shelters, which begin to fill up during the cold-weather season.

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“We need more resources in the community to help people,” he said. “But we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

According to data released in September 2022 at the inaugural Pennsylvania Community Health Worker Conference in Boalsburg, Dunleavy and Vomarow are among more than 500 community health workers currently employed in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Linda Thomas-Hammack, president and CEO of The Wright Center for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education, sees community health workers as key to providing whole-person care because they help identify and address social and economic problems a patient may face. Experiences outside the clinic, such as food insecurity or lack of adequate housing. Through their efforts, CHWs are helping entire families and connecting previously marginalized populations to the affordable, non-discriminatory and high-quality health services they deserve.

“Community health workers are essential members of our provider care team who enhance our efforts to promote wellness and resilience, increase the use of preventive services, better manage chronic illnesses and address the complex socioeconomic determinants of health,” said Thomas-Hemmack.

“These passionate and talented, front-line public health workers are trusted members of our team and the communities they serve,” he added. “By serving as front-line agents of change, they are reducing health care disparities and health disparities in our medically underserved communities.”

For more information about the role of community health workers or to apply for a training course, see www.pachw.org/education-training. Current community health workers can apply for open positions by visiting The Wright Center for Community Health TheWrightCenter.org/careers.

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