SPHHS wins national ‘Promising Practice’ Award for public health worker training plans

November 5, 2013

(Courtesy UMass Amherst News Office)

From left: Stuart Chipkin, Daniel Gerber, and Dawn Heffernan

At the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting in Boston this week, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will formally recognize public health educators from the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) for their ground-breaking survey of public health needs in western Massachusetts and their creative plans to meet those needs.

Stuart Chipkin, Research Professor of Kinesiology, and Dan Gerber, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, with Dawn Heffernan, director of the Western Massachusetts Public Health Training Center (WMPHTC), and several other UMass Amherst colleagues, recently received the national “Promising Practice” award from HRSA for their 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.

Heffernan and others on the training center team will give a presentation at the APHA meeting, which attracts more than 13,000 physicians, nurses and other public health professionals. She says WMPHTC plans to become a recognized training center for community health workers and has developed workshops and trainers to meet this goal. 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.”

The UMass Amherst researchers point out that 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. 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.

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’s estimated that scores of patient navigators, promotores and other community volunteers at YMCAs, exercise clubs, food banks and senior centers could be certified. Heffernan adds, “There’s a lot of interagency partnering going on.” Promotores are community health workers in the Spanish-speaking community.

She points out, “We got this award because we have asked and continue to ask the people directly involved: ‘What are the things you need to be trained effectively as a community health worker?’ We had discussions with various managers and we did a survey, asking the workers themselves to identify needs, rank them in importance and their ability to address them. We got more than 100 responses in one survey and spoke to dozens of key managers in the qualitative part of our assessment.”

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 high need/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.”

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.”

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, because let’s face it, we do have some major health issues in our region.” High rates of smoking, diabetes, heart disease and other “lifestyle” diseases make the need obvious, he adds.  

The north Berkshire coalition already sponsors a 15-week, 30-hour program that has trained 42 outreach volunteers. Bashevkin thinks that given the right timing and support, perhaps a dozen of them might take the WMPHTC’s 60-hour curriculum leading to state certification because it might lead to a future job and certainly would increase their impact on communities they care about. “People learn information they need from friends and neighbors,” he explains. “They trust their neighbor who has the facts about things like fuel assistance, food and nutrition assistance and child care resources. If we could use this networking to get the word out about living a healthier lifestyle and how to get support for that, it would be a great benefit to our community.”

The WMPHTC won a four-year, $2.5 million grant in 2011 to improve the public health system 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.”