Heffernan expands workforce development and community outreach at SPHHS

January 15, 2015

Slideshow: Dawn Heffernan leads a training course for community health workers.

Strengthening the current and future public health workforce of New England is what Dawn Heffernan’s work at UMass Amherst is all about. Heffernan is the Director of the UMass Local Performance Site, a $300,000, four-year project through the New England Public Health Training Center (NEPHTC). The NEPHTC, headquartered at the Boston University School of Public Health, is focused on increasing the knowledge of both the current and upcoming public health workforce in New England. Heffernan and her NEPHTC colleagues are achieving this goal through training community health workers (CHWs) and providing internship opportunities for public health students.

Each academic year the program is placing three UMass Amherst graduate students in internships with community agencies working to reduce the rates of chronic diseases. This real world experience compliments the classroom learning students already have at UMass Amherst, and equip them for future work in the public health workforce.

Sabina Dhakal, a 2014 alumna of the MPH program, interned at Caring Health Center in Springfield through the training center program and is now a Community Programs Coordinator and Ethnographer there. She sees the value in the work Heffernan and the training center are doing.

“In the classroom you get a case study but not the background knowledge. Through the training center I was able to see how a community health center is run and the flexibility you need in order to create successful public health programming, especially for vulnerable populations,” she says.

To address current public health preparation needs, Heffernan and her colleagues have developed and are leading training sessions for CHWs. The class takes part in 80 hours of training focused on helping them meet 10 core competencies required for certification in the profession. CHWs are generally defined as professionals who utilize their cultural knowledge of the population where they work to carry out outreach on public health issues in a community-based setting. They do everything from enrolling citizens in health insurance, to advocating for clients having trouble navigating healthcare systems, to making home visits to educate about chronic health problems in their community.

Though currently the CHW program is working with Massachusetts workers, it will soon expand to include all the New England states. This will take place through the use of blended online training, says Heffernan. Heffernan and colleagues are also planning to expand training options once they implement the online courses.

“I can see real potential for working with supervisors of CHWs this way,” she says. Currently, supervisors receive a one-hour orientation through the training center, which Heffernan notes, will eventually be several hours long.

Heffernan is currently wrapping up her first CHW training session. The 20 participants in the class include speakers of a wide range of languages including Albanian, Nepali, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The agencies participating are just as diverse, including Edward M Kennedy Community Health Center, Family Health Center of Worcester, Greater Holyoke YMCA, Holyoke Health Center, Holyoke Medical Center, Western MA Physicians Associates, River Valley Counseling Center, Pediatric Primary Care at UMass Medical Center, St. Paul’s Elder Outreach, UMass Memorial Health Care, and UMass Memorial Medical Center.

According to Heffernan, though the work has been extensive for the project it is serving a key need.

“We are training an emerging workforce in public health at standards that meet a high level,” she says.