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Promising Practice
A New Model for Training Community Health Workers
Group of Franklin and Hampden County community health volunteers at training.

Public health educators at UMass Amherst train community health workers to establish health, wellness, and prevention programs and to prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes. 

Just as Massachusetts was a model for the federal Affordable Care Act, so too the Commonwealth is now a national model for addressing unmet training needs of community health workers who at present have little or no access to relevant public health education.

UMass Amherst community health specialists Stuart Chipkin and Dan Gerber (School of Public Health and Health Sciences), along with Dawn Heffernan, director of the Western Massachusetts Public Health Training Center (WMPHTC), and several other UMass Amherst colleagues, have received the national “Promising Practice” award from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for a new 10-week, 60-hour pilot training plan and curriculum, expected to meet the requirements for the voluntary state certification program for community health workers in 2014.

UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences educators have been recognized by the HRSA for their groundbreaking survey of public health needs in western Massachusetts and their creative plans to meet these needs. Fewer than 10 states now certify community health workers, says Heffernan, while Massachusetts is on the verge of identifying requirements and writing a state examination.

This recognition caps a $2.5 million grant awarded in 2011 to improve public health by strengthening the technical, scientific, managerial and leadership competence of current and future public health workers in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

Chipkin says that this project “is a great opportunity to bridge the world of clinic and community by increasing collaboration between the state’s flagship public university and health care providers and community health organizations.”

WMPHTC training program focused on the risk of heart disease at the Dunbar YMCA in Springfield
The Western Massachusetts Public Health Training Center plans to become a recognized training center for community health workers and has developed workshops and trainers to meet this goal. As SPHHS Dean Marjorie Aelion observes, “It’s very exciting for our school and the training center to be among the elite schools of public health in the country and to be acknowledged for excellence in teaching, research and community outreach.”

As Chipkin explains, “Your health care is changing. It is no longer just in the doctor’s office, exam room or lab. Health care delivery is changing from a hierarchical model to a team approach and in a wide variety of settings.” In western Massachusetts, it is estimated that scores of patient navigators, promotores (community health workers in the Spanish-speaking community) and other community volunteers at YMCAs, exercise clubs, food banks and senior centers can be certified. Heffernan adds, “There’s a lot of interagency partnering going on.”

Supermarket tour - part of a collaborative project to assess education and support programs for patients with diabetes
Chipkin says many community outreach workers, both paid and volunteer, have little formal health care education, yet they are rich in experience helping individuals in both high need and low resource communities. “One of our goals is to take them to the next level,” he says. “We want to introduce what we call core competencies for public health, most likely through a combination of online and in-class training, to transform the impact of community health workers from the individual level to the population level.”

Al Bashevkin, director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in North Adams, says, “It would be really great if we could add health issues to our community outreach efforts… High rates of smoking, diabetes, heart disease and other “lifestyle” diseases make the need obvious,” he adds.  

Gerber explains, “The old model used to be that community health workers were trained in categories by disease and their knowledge wasn’t transferrable. The new philosophy is, if we do this right, skills needed by a community health worker will be transferable from one case to another. The program is oriented to this new approach.”

Janet Lathrop
Banner Image: WMPHTC leadership training for Franklin and Hampden County volunteers