COLUMBIA, Mo. – Financial insecurity, housing conditions and other social factors can have a significant impact on health. Community health workers (CHWs)—front-line public health workers who are trusted members of the communities they serve—are positioned to address social determinants of health on a case-by-case basis.

Despite the critical importance of CHWs as community connectors, Missouri’s CHW infrastructure and support network is still in its early stages. To help this network become more effective at improving Missourians’ health, a new project will connect key statewide partners to develop a robust infrastructure for CHW continuing education, training and support, said Graham McCaulley, project director and associate extension professor in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences (HES).

Faculty from HES and MU Extension are working with the Community Health Workers Association of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to support an emerging CHW network.

This new partnership seeks to strengthen the profession so that CHWs and their partners in clinical and social service settings have tools and knowledge to help remove social barriers to health, McCaulley said.

“Although what happens in medical settings remains critical, research shows social and environmental factors play a greater role in individual and community health,” McCaulley said. “By leveraging the expertise of HES faculty in personal finance, housing quality, gerontology/family dynamics, social work, and nutrition and health; and by building on MU Extension’s strong connections in local communities, we can help CHWs to better understand and address social determinants of health in their communities through education and technical assistance.”

Community health workers are employed by hospitals, clinics, nonprofits and other entities as advisers and advocates for clients in clinical and social service settings, McCaulley said. They can serve as liaisons between health/social services and their communities to facilitate access to services and improve the quality of those services.

CHWs also build individual and community capacity by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency through a range of activities such as outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy.

"The Community Health Workers Association of Missouri has an incredibly bright future ahead with the MU Extension partnership,” said Atara Estes, president of the association. “We are looking forward to future collaborations for enhancing the community health worker's profession.”

The project has three objectives.

1. Create: Gain a clear understanding of the needs, strengths, and resources that community connectors have as they work with clients in the areas of non-clinical, social determinants of health.

2. Educate: Deliver a continuum of tools and resources that builds a robust community of practice for community connectors and CHWs.

3. Connect: Use extension field faculty liaisons to support regional networks of CHWs and community connector partners who are equipped to address non-clinical social determinants of health in communities.

This project is made possible through support and guidance from the Missouri Foundation for Health, which has provided a three-year, $511,063 award under the foundation’s Access to Care Initiatives.

“The project will advance the leadership of CHWs to enhance capacity building, contribute new ideas for improved service delivery and help Missourians gain resiliency in navigating barriers attributed to key social determinants of health such as housing, finances, employment and stress,” said Terry Plain, senior strategist, Missouri Foundation for Health.