Loma Linda University Health, Medical Center and Children’s Hospital are now employing community health workers in an effort to broaden the organizations’ scope of services and create links to strengthen community-based disease prevention and treatment.

Often called “promotores de salud,” community health workers (CHWs) are trusted members of the community who build bridges between clinical care and local citizens. Their shared experience allows them to have a fundamental understanding of the culture, languages, challenges and health-related needs patients may face. Community health workers help patients navigate the healthcare system, reduce patients’ unnecessary hospitalizations, increase positive long-term population health outcomes and lower health care costs.

Healthcare organizations like Loma Linda University Health are increasingly recognizing the need for community health workers as an integral part of complex healthcare teams. CHWs complement conventional medical care by helping to address patient’s basic health needs — allowing clinicians to focus more on clinical services.

“Health barriers within a community are not always medical, but can have more to do with cultural, social or economic issues,” says Lily Lee, DrPH(c), MPH, director of academic programs at the San Manuel Gateway College Promotores Academy.

“Community health workers can help members of a community address these barriers — using a patient’s individual strengths to help build and sustain capacity through health literacy, motivation and adherence to health plans,” says Lee. Community health workers have the ability to improve a patient’s overall physical and mental health, whether it’s a diabetic who can’t access or afford healthy foods, an aged widower who is having difficulty getting his prescription filled, or a pregnant teen with no emotional support.

The Promotores Academy — a partnership between Loma Linda University Health and El Sol Neighborhood Education Center at San Manuel Gateway College — has educational programs that train, certify and prepare community health workers to join the community workforce in population health management.

San Manuel Gateway College is the first of its kind in the United States. The college integrates training programs in health careers with clinical experience, allowing students to benefit from hands-on training and mentoring by Loma Linda University Health faculty and students.

Enrolled students receive training in population health improvement strategies such as individual and community capacity building, health promotion, disease prevention, cultural mediation, advocacy and home visitation.

After completion of the basic community health worker certificate program, graduates can receive specialty training as clinic-based, behavioral health, and school-based CHWs. This pilot program provides a CHW with advanced knowledge and expertise to more effectively and competently assist the most at-risk patients and high-risk populations with much-needed support.

Loma Linda University Health’s first community health worker

Silvia Ortega, recent Promotores Academy clinic-based community health worker graduate, is passionate about working within her community to help expectant mothers and families become healthier; physically, mentally and spiritually.

In December, Ortega was among 14 students that became the first clinic-based community health worker graduates of San Manuel Gateway College.

During her practicum at the Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), Ortega believes God used her family’s own painful story of infant loss to help her be sensitive and nurturing to parents going through health issues with their own children. Ortega credits the pilot program for her ability to be a healthcare advisor and a support system to families. “It’s something I wish our family had during a difficult time,” she said.

Ortega has used her personal experiences, dedication to family health promotion and CHW education to become an integral part of the accreditation process for programs like the Home Visitation Expectant Mothers Program. According to Stacey Belliard, DPT, instructor and physical therapist at the Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, Ortega has shown an exceptional capacity to engage with families, young children, and professionals.

Because of her devotion to making a difference in the lives of vulnerable families and communities, in November of 2016, Ortega became the first Latina and youngest governing board member elected to the Jurupa Unified School District, trustee area two — her home school district.

“The education I received at San Manuel College Promotores Academy has allowed me to serve my community in ways I could have never anticipated,” Ortega says.

Ortega is the first clinic-based community health worker to be employed at Loma Linda University Health. She has accepted a full-time position at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital perinatal institute with a focus on the NICU.

By May of 2018, two other community health workers will be employed in the following departments: Loma Linda University Medical Center diabetes treatment center and Loma Linda University Health transitions of care management.

“We believe that education and workforce development will be the most effective public health intervention in our region,” says Juan Carlos Belliard, PhD, MPH, assistant vice president for community partnerships. “We are committed as an institution and a community to putting our best efforts behind this upstream approach to whole-person care.”