In an attempt to better understand and accommodate the patient experience, the role of community health workers (or CHWs) is being evaluated and potentially implemented on a larger scale. CHWs are trained laymen who act as a link between patients and medical professionals. They break down barriers, streamline communication, and represent the patient’s interests even when the patient is less than forthcoming.

For instance, an elderly woman with high blood pressure was consistently missing her appointments. She didn’t tell her doctor her electricity had been shut off, and soon her health was relegated to the back-burner while she worked to come up with the money for utilities. She did, however, notify one member of her medical team, Nadirah Rogers, who then communicated the problem to the woman’s doctor. Soon, Rogers connected the woman with various programs that reduce electricity and rent bills. Consequently, the woman’s stress level (and blood pressure) dropped.

Nadirah Roger is one such CHW helping patients communicate what they fail to voice. She is involved in one of dozens of PCORI-funded projects that are currently measuring whether such CHWs can actually improve outcomes and facilitate the patient experience. She has a wide berth of responsibilities including but not limited to health monitoring, care coordination, and teaching patients about their respective disease and the healthcare system at large.

In order to maximize the impact of CHWs, these PCORI-projects are being evaluated with scrutiny. Take this project for instance, where CHWs are assisting parents with a newborn in intensive care. They are measuring healthcare utilization, infant immunizations, parents’ stress, anxiety, and depression. Yet another study is examining the effects of an initiative focused on teaching physicians about smoking cessation medications that help patients with severe mental illness to quit. It will last for two years and has 1,300 participants.

Clearly, the role of community health workers is taking on much greater significance.  CHWs could very well serve as the bridge to close the gap between doctor and patient in contemporary healthcare. With questions about patient engagement and patient involvement whirling through through the medical industry at large, CHWs may just be the answer.