About 100 Yale students and local residents gathered on Monday night to engage with community health workers in New Haven.

Organized by the Yale U.S. Health Justice Collaborative, the event aimed to highlight the efforts of community health workers and draw attention to community health initiatives and reforms. Community health workers and leaders from several local centers, including Project Access New Haven, Yale Transitions Clinic and Yale Community Health Care Van, shared their experiences at the event.

“We hoped to elevate the work of community health workers in New Haven and give them a platform to share their stories,” said Alex Weiner NUR ’19, a co-leader of the collaborative.

Showcasing local efforts in community health and primary health care models, the event included two panels of community health workers and leaders as well as a breakout session. Kayla Ringelheim SOM ’18 SPH ’18, a co-leader of the collaborative, said she was excited to hear from community health workers about their experiences, which often go unshared, and to listen to people who are influential in shaping community health in New Haven.

The collaborative began discussions to host this event when they recognized that the patient navigator programs at the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing, which guide patients through their health care needs, were not collaborating with community health worker programs in New Haven, Weiner said at the event. This disconnect led to a lack of coordination in providing health care to many of the city’s communities, said Claire Qureshi ’05, who works for the Office of the U.N. Special Envoy for Health in her introduction for the event’s first speaker panel.

“How can we better use community health strategies to improve the health outcomes of New Haven’s most disadvantaged groups?” Qureshi asked the attendees.

In the first panel, four community health workers offered insight into their motivations for working in community health and stories about rewarding or challenging experiences with patients.

Jerry Smart, a community health worker at Yale Transitions Clinic, shared that his personal experience in prison has enabled him to understand the challenges that people face when they are released.

“There are so many unmet needs in this population, but the health care system can be very intimidating,” Smart said. “We are on the front line, trying to help these individuals.”

One of the largest challenges of this work, however, is convincing people that health workers are there to help, said Rolo Lopez, an outreach case manager with the Yale Community Health Care Van. His work includes providing services such as HIV testing and syringe exchange programs, as well as offering resources to obtain care and housing and connecting people to local community health centers.

The most important element of working in community health is to develop a support system to empower people to navigate the health care system and become advocates for themselves, said panel speaker Juan Carmona, a patient navigator at Project Access New Haven.

The next panel provided an opportunity for leaders of community health organizations to share their work and visions for the field. Panel speaker Michael Taylor, the CEO of Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, addressed challenges of economic sustainability in community health efforts. Various reforms including providing care as an alternative to incarceration for substance abuse and efforts like the center’s partnership with Yale New Haven Hospital in its new primary care clinic may lower costs while providing better health outcomes, he said.

Director of Population for Yale Medicine and School of Medicine Brita Roy emphasized the importance of collaborations between Yale New Haven Hospital and community health organizations around New Haven to achieve improved patient outcomes.

Further underscoring the night’s theme of collaboration, the final breakout session facilitated small group discussions centered on partnerships among different health care stakeholders in New Haven. Each group drew arrows on a map of more than 40 organizations around the city to show any connections they found. The groups on the map included large employers, investors, academic institutions and community health organizations.

The collaborative hopes to host similar events in the future to explore the strategy and design of community health systems and connect different community health stakeholders around New Haven, Weiner said.

The U.S. Health Justice Collaborative was established in 2015.

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu

Correction, Dec. 6: A previous version of the article referred to Claire Qureshi ‘05 as the Office of the U.N. Special Envoy for Health. In fact, she works for the Office of the U.N. Special Envoy for Health.