Healthcare organizations in Connecticut could improve the health of high-need patients with asthma, diabetes, and other chronic conditions while also saving money by hiring community health workers, according to an analysis completed by UMass Medical School and released June 19 by the Connecticut Health Foundation.
Community health workers are frontline public health workers who can help bridge the gaps between clinical care and the many factors outside the doctor’s office that affect patients’ health. Many already operate in Connecticut, often referred to by titles such as patient navigators, health coaches, or peer educators.
Although research has demonstrated that community health workers can improve health outcomes, particularly for high-need patients, their services have typically been funded through grants and other temporary payment sources. Even successful programs often face the risk of elimination if funding can’t be sustained.
“Community health workers can play a critical role in the health care system by ensuring that patients can get what they need to take care of their health, whether it’s helping patients understand how to manage their chronic conditions, connecting individuals to social services to address their most pressing needs, or helping to translate a doctor’s orders,” said Patricia Baker, president and CEO of the Connecticut Health Foundation. “Over the years, the foundation has supported many community health worker programs, and their value has been proven again and again. Our goal now is to ensure that they can be more sustainably embedded in the health care system.”
Katharine London, MS, Kelly Love, JD, and Roosa Tikkanen, MPH, of UMass Medical School’s Center for Health Law and Economics prepared the report, which offers a blueprint for potential programs that hospital systems, insurance companies, community organizations and other groups could pilot to both improve health outcomes and achieve a positive return on investment. Each model is projected to cost less than it would save in direct medical costs.
A program targeted at frequent emergency department users with behavioral health needs in New London County, for example, would be projected to save $2.40 in health care costs for every $1 invested. In that program, community health workers would work to reduce patients’ emergency department use by connecting them with a primary care provider, helping them navigate the health care system to meet their health needs outside the emergency room, and assist them in accessing community resources that could address housing and other issues that affect their well-being.
The other models identified in the report would focus on children with uncontrolled asthma in Greater New Haven, Latinos with diabetes in Hartford, adults with complex health care needs and frequent emergency department visits in New London County, and adults with cardiovascular risk factors in Windham County.
“Community health worker services represent both good health care and good business,” said Gregory B. Butler, chair of the Connecticut Health Foundation’s board of directors. “This report makes a business case for community health workers, and will help those leading health care organizations ensure they are investing in interventions that will bring results.”
The report is intended to serve as a toolkit for health care organizations in Connecticut to use in implementing community health worker services.