By Michael Haederle

Building Better Connections

Community Health Workers Save Money and Improve Patient Outcomes, Study Finds

Community health workers (CHWs) partner with providers and managed care organizations to help vulnerable people better meet their social needs and help support healthier outcomes.

This month, the Washington, D.C.-based Commonwealth Fund released a case study detailing innovations pioneered by The University of New Mexico's Office for Community Health in the use of CHWs in urban and rural areas.

"We're delighted to have our work highlighted by The Commonwealth Fund," said Arthur Kaufman, MD, UNM's vice chancellor for community health. "CHWs have an incredibly important role to play in helping people to access the support they need to lead healthier lives. We've demonstrated a 4-to-1 return on investment, which attracts sustained funding from health care systems."

The 102-year-old nonprofit foundation promotes universal access to affordable quality health care. Its latest report focuses on UNM's training and deployment of CHWs, who, as their name implies, are dedicated to helping underserved patients access the social and health care resources they need.

The study highlights a pilot project demonstrating that the substantial cost savings that resulted when CHWs redirected Medicaid patients from UNM Hospital's emergency department to primary care providers for many of their health needs.

That pilot led to a New Mexico requirement that all Medicaid managed care organizations hire or contracts for CHW services. Today, the Commonwealth study reports, nearly one-fifth of the more than 850 CHWs working in the state are employed by these organizations.

The case study also takes a closer look at three New Mexico programs making use of CHWs: the One Hope Centro de Vida Health Center in Albuquerque's International District, First Choice "Health Commons" in the South Valley (a federally qualified health center), and Pathways to a Healthy Bernalillo County, which coordinates connections with local social service agencies.

In each case, the study shows, adding CHWs to the mix led to improved patient outcomes for things like cancer screen and flu vaccinations and helped people connect with community-based organizations to help with needs like food insecurity, housing instability and poverty.

In the Pathways program, CHWs help people - many of whom have a criminal record or are living with mental illness - to connect with a primary care provider, secure stable housing and find jobs.

CHWs are also working elsewhere in New Mexico, including Hidalgo Medical Services in Silver City, where they link patients to local food pantries and housing support. And, they have expanded into primary care clinics and the emergency department at UNM Hospital. They also screen and meet the acute needs of individuals just released from the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, and provide intense case management of community members with complex behavioral and substance abuse challenges.

"The Commonwealth Fund's case study highlights our many successes with CHWs," Kaufman said. "It bolsters UNM's role as a Carnegie-designated Community-Serving Institution and underscores the challenges and opportunities we have to expand this resource throughout New Mexico."

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