Grass-roots network: Community health workers help grow stronger provider-patient ties

As a child growing up in Minnesota, Foua Khang helped her immigrant parents and grandparents cope in a place where few people spoke their native Hmong language. 

Now, as a community health worker employed by St. Paul-based HealthEast Care System, she helps those in her Hmong community navigate the complex and confusing U.S. healthcare system, communicate with their providers and meet their daily needs.

Khang helps area refugees and providers bridge the cultural gaps that can lead to miscommunication. For example, Khang's clients may be surprised when she tells them they are welcome to ask their doctors and nurses questions. The system's providers use her as a single point of contact to help coordinate services for their patients. 

Khang is one of nearly two dozen lay community health workers hired in the past two years by four-hospital HealthEast to help patients from all demographics and ages with issues that affect their health, including housing problems, food insecurity, lack of transportation and cultural practices. Khang and her colleagues work in HealthEast clinics and hospitals alongside clinical professionals, but do not provide any medical services.

Hez Obermark, director of clinics and healthcare homes at HealthEast, said her system has been able to hire 21 community health workers over the past two years because their salaries are more affordable than those for RNs and social workers. 

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