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Partners in Health and the role of Community Health Workers in fostering social connectedness

March 21, 2016

Partners In Health and Compañeros en Salud join the social connectedness movement with a project to document the power of social connectedness and the role of the Community Health Workers. Partners in Health (PIH) is a non-profit global health organization with a goal of bringing universal health care to communities that are not always able to access basic health services.

Their mission is rooted in equity as they understand that poverty and inequality are often common sources of ill health, and their “medical and moral” model is one based on solidarity and an ardent aim to provide universal access to a basic human right. PIH workers put themselves at the centre of impoverished communities – in places such as Haiti, Rwanda and Liberia – and look to derive solutions based on the customs and cultural knowledge of the individuals who live there. They work to ensure that their staff “act only after listening to them and learning from them.”

This kind of social awareness is at the heart of PIH’s successful delivery of preferential options to the poorest communities, and by teaming up with sister organizations and government groups around the world, their work is truly palpable. PIH’s health projects involve many different geographic and socio-economic conditions and the treatment of a myriad of simple and complex diseases.

Most recently, the organization has been dealing with the Zika virus, as they serve 32,000 pregnant Haitian women each year. The Zika virus requires supportive care, as it is not yet curable or preventable, and this is a challenge in a place like Haiti, where critical care is not easily accessible. For PIH to correspondingly support communities dealing with this widespread virus, further medical and human resources will be needed going forward. Building trust and social connection is intrinsic to PIH’s proactive health care plan.

One of their most successful priority programs involves hiring and training community health workers (CHWs) in impoverished regions. Over 12,000 CHWs around the world bridge the gap between the clinic’s doctors and nurses and the rest of the community, and provide a point of contact for communication and demonstration. They are trusted members of their respective communities and they are welcomed into the homes — making health treatments far more attainable.

A great example of the importance of the role of the CHW can be found in the Haitian word used to describe these workers: accompagnateurs. This term truly encapsulates the understanding from the community that the CHWs “accompany” people in their journey from illness and back to good health. The term also reflects the encouragement for social connection and the inclusiveness that CHWs bring to their work. The importance of inclusiveness was shared in a recent piece on the PIH website entitled The Healing Power of Social Connection.

In Chiapas, Mexico, the CHWs are trained by a PIH sister organization called Compañeros en Salud (CES), and the workers here are, similarly, referred to as the acompañantes. Chiapas is a small village in the Sierra Madre mountains and its inhabitants are not only geographically isolated, but sometimes emotionally isolated, as well. According to the article, the CHWs serve as the “front line in a comprehensive primary health care team”, and provide not only long-term support to those with chronic illness, but “play a vital role in fostering social ties between individuals in the community.”

The Samuel Family Foundation is partnering up with PIH and CES on a project to document the power of social connectedness and the role of the CHW. Using photo essays and video interviews, the project aims to provide insight into “provider and patient perceptions of the impact of CHWs.” This summer, CES will be making arrangements with PIH and the Samuel Family Foundation to bring together CHWs from Haiti, Mexico, Navajo Nation, and Peru to to share their stories. Convening an international conversation on best practice is a necessary step in establishing the right tools to continue to foster social connectedness on CHW projects around the world.

Follow Partners in Health to learn more about the project and watch the stories unfold. You can also donate to the cause.