But should community health workers be viewed merely as extensions of medical institutions when large proportions of the population will not visit a doctor in a given year? An alternative model, wrote Health Affairs editor Alan Weil,
views CHWs as part of the communities in which they work. The roles of community health workers are defined by the community and CHWs through a process of community engagement. CHWs are valued for their contribution to community health, not for the savings they generate for health plans or providers. CHWs are embedded in the community, not in a clinician’s office or hospital. Advocacy is required to effect a transfer of resources out of clinical care into the community.
On the other hand, a New England Journal of Medicine commentary observed that the absence of connections between community health workers and family physicians can leave them working at cross-purposes:
CHW services are commonly delivered by community-based organizations that are not integrated with the health care system — for example, church-based programs offering blood-pressure screening and education. Without formal linkages to clinical providers, these programs face many of the same limitations — and may produce the same disappointing results — as stand-alone disease-management programs. CHWs cannot work with clinicians to address potential health challenges in real time, and clinicians can't shift nonclinical tasks to more cost-effective CHWs. Indeed, clinicians often don't recognize the value of CHWs because they don't work with them.
How can we bridge this gap? A recent review in the Annals of Family Medicine provided a list of structure, process, and outcome factors to consider for patient-centered medical homes to partner with peer supporters (a.k.a. community health workers).
For complex patients with multiple health conditions, care coordination is a key role where community health workers could potentially be more successful and cost-effective than expensive projects led by registered nurses or physicians. Reviewing the past decade of Medicare demonstration projects, researchers from the Robert Graham Center drew five lessons for future coordinated care models:
(1) Minimize expenses by sharing resources and avoiding cost ineffective interventions
(2) Concentrate on high utilizers
(3) Foster relationships with both providers and patients
(4) Track patients across the medical neighborhood in real time
(5) Extend rather than duplicate the efforts of primary care practices