The Power of Community Health Workers

In 2016, Lisa Pleas was facing an incredible undertaking: her father’s deteriorating health. She tried to help him as much as possible, but he was a proud veteran and retired steel worker who didn’t always want to go to his doctor appointments or take his medications. Lisa felt the weight of her father’s health resting on her shoulders. “To check on everything my father needed was a challenge. I was going crazy, but I tried not letting it show to him,” said Lisa.

During this experience, Lisa longed for somebody to answer the question that continuously ran through her mind: “Why can’t someone simply answer my questions, take care of the situation and remove the barriers preventing my father from getting the care he needs?” Sadly, she didn’t receive the answers she needed until after her father passed away a few months later.

In the months following her father’s death, Lisa began a new job as a community health worker at UnitedHealthcare. In this role, she quickly discovered the impact she made in people’s lives. This realization caused Lisa to reflect on her experience caring for her father. “I wish there would have been a community health worker that could have walked this journey with my father and me,” said Lisa. “That would have been very helpful.”

Community health workers build relationships with people outside of a clinical setting. Often, they go to individuals’ homes, places of worship or community centers to provide them with the care they need. They help patients navigate the health care system, find affordable care and provide resources to support long-term health. Community health workers are truly at the frontline of access to care.

“We are that link between the member and the provider. A lot of people don’t know some of the questions they should and can ask when they see a provider,” said Lisa.

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, UnitedHealthcare Community & State senior vice president of integrated health and social services, agrees as he has worked with countless community health workers and patients throughout his career. In fact, he established a successful health worker and health coach program at his former organization, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, where he was the founder and CEO. Now, Dr. Brenner brings his past experiences, expertise and insights to lead the community health worker program at UnitedHealthcare.

“Patients often get overwhelmed; they get anxious seeking health care. Having someone walk alongside them and help guide them, navigate them and set goals can be a very powerful thing,” said Dr. Brenner. “The community health worker concept really comes out of the idea that trained unlicensed professionals can help guide patients through the health care system.”

In the community health worker model at UnitedHealthcare, health care encompasses more than just clinical services, because access truly begins before the first appointment. It starts by addressing the social determinants of health, which includes a person’s access to food, stable housing, transportation and social connection. These factors often have the biggest effect on underserved and uninsured populations.

Some of the services health workers provide their community members include:

  • scheduling or rescheduling doctor appointments;
  • coordinating transportation services;
  • educating individuals on the different location options for health care;
  • building trusted relationships with individuals and listening to their needs;
  • visiting individuals who haven’t responded to phone calls or emails;
  • setting them up with a mail order pharmacy, so their prescriptions can get delivered;
  • answering questions individuals have regarding their health coverage or benefits.

Community health workers are dedicated to enhancing the health of community members, but this impact isn’t one-sided. Lisa was surprised to learn that being someone’s connection point to the health care system also has a profound effect on her.

“It’s rewarding just to see the outcome or individual who is actually satisfied with the services or is happy just to have a community health worker. For them to actually say they didn’t know how helpful you could be to them is rewarding for me,” said Lisa.

“From what I’ve seen, patients can get extremely bonded with their community health worker and really start to use the community health worker as a front door to the health care system,” said Dr. Brenner.

After recognizing the success of its own health workers, UnitedHealthcare is opening the door for other organizations to establish and expand their community health worker programs. Lisa is one of many working to help the tens of millions of people living in the United States who continue to struggle to get access to the health-related services they need.

Watch the video below to learn more about Lisa’s role as a community health worker. Please note that this program may not be available with all plans.