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Meet the Community Health Workers Supporting Health Beyond the Clinic

April 5, 2021

Health has many layers and is influenced by a multitude of factors outside the clinic. Given this, there is growing recognition that those in the health system should find ways to address social needs in order to improve health for their patients and their communities. One way to address social needs and build relationships with often underinvested communities is through the frontline work of community health workers.

Community health workers (CHWs) are trusted members of the community, serving as a connector between a local health entity, like a hospital, and a particular community to increase health access and reduce health inequities. CHWs improve health delivery and play an important role in addressing social needs. In the United States, CHWs have been working in rural areas and tribal nations since at least the 1950s, but interest in these models has grown significantly since 2010.

Central Texas is home to a number of organizations that are experimenting with CHW models to deliver better care to those who need it most. Along with partners at Lonestar Circle of Care, CommUnity Care, and Integral Care, Dell Med is a part of this movement to integrate CHWs into the health system to improve health and social care in our region.

Ricardo Garay is a certified CHW instructor, board member of the National Association of Community Health Workers and the Texas Association of Promotores and Community Health Workers and program manager for the division of the Community Engagement and Health Equity at Dell Med. On March 22, he moderated a panel on local CHW models and spoke with Dell Med’s CHWs: Diana Manzo, Brenda Garza, and Richard Johnson.

Get to Know Dell Med’s CHWs

Diana Manzo, Brenda Garza, and Richard Johnson each came to their profession through lived experiences with the health system. Manzo, a CHW and social worker who grew up in a Texas border town, says she was born to do this work. As a child, she recalls going to doctor’s appointments and translating for her father, who only spoke Spanish. Today, she works out of Lonestar Circle of Care’s Collinfield Clinic in Rundberg, connecting patients with resources like food and diapers, housing support, and more. Coming from a similar background to many of her clients, Manzo feels inspired by the stories that her clients tell and is motivated to make a difference in their lives.

When Brenda Garza moved to the United States from Mexico, she was immediately diagnosed with cancer. She found that, even though she spoke English, her physicians struggled to communicate her diagnosis and treatment options with her. Frustrated by this experience and inspired to help others, she approached the American Cancer Society to volunteer to translate their materials into Spanish to make them more accessible. From there, she carved her own path toward becoming a CHW and now serves Latinx patients with COVID-19 at Dell-Seton by providing navigation within the health care system, information about COVID-19, and an empathetic connection between the patient and care team.

Richard Johnson became a CHW after experiencing homelessness and struggling to get needed medical attention. Knowing that others were experiencing the same difficulties, he decided that he wanted to join the medical field to reduce the barriers he faced and to give people of color a chance to see someone who looked like them in the health system. Richard now works with CommUnity Care and Integral Care to serve individuals experiencing homelessness, ensuring they have access to the right medical and mental health care, medications, and follow-up needs. He sees himself as someone who builds trust in medicine.

Indeed, building trust between community members and the health system is an important part of the job for any CHW. Manzo, Garza and Richardson agree that a guiding principle in building trust starts simply by meeting people where they are: on a street corner, in their hospital bed, in their school or home. As Dell Med continues to rethink how academic medicine can improve health for our whole community — not just our patients — we recognize the meaningful and necessary roles that CHWs play in achieving this mission.

Public health is an important part of health care. This National Public Health Week we're highlighting some of the ways public health influences health in the clinic and beyond. Follow us on Twitter or Instagram for more.