Wayne State training academy addresses the community healthcare worker shortage

The program focuses on training workers to understand health disparities and social determinants of health.
Ervin Hollins on the job. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Ervin Hollins has worked in community health for about a decade, mainly focused on patient advocacy. But recently, he significantly upgraded his professional expertise through his involvement with a new Wayne State University program. 

The Community Health Worker (CHW) Academy is a special certification institute offered through the university’s College of Education, providing training and professional development to people working in the community health field. 

Hollins, who graduated from the academy in January, feels he got quite a lot out of his experience there.

“Even though I had worked in that healthcare sector before, there was so much that I learned about social disparities in our communities and how they can affect our clientele,”  the 54-year-old Detroiter told Planet Detroit. “We learned to help them overcome not only those disparities but their health issues as well.”

Hollins received the training when he was hired on to work with Wayne Health’s Mobile Health Unit program, which uses modified sprinter vans to provide free screenings and other health services to local community members.

“It’s just been an amazing ride,” Hollins said. “It’s just an amazing chance to give back to my community.”

Meeting a growing need

Wayne State’s CHW Academy partners with organizations to develop recruitment, hiring, training, supervision, and professional development plans that meet their employment needs. It also offers customized training for individuals looking for work in community health. 

Dr. Nate McCaughtry, Director of the CHW Academy and a Wayne State professor and assistant dean, describes community health workers as frontline health workers “who provide nonclinical services to community members as part of the healthcare process.”  

Generally active in underserved communities, they work directly with community members to promote healthy behavior and improve healthcare coordination, with an eye towards addressing social determinants of health. 

They often juggle multiple roles, including screenings, education, health coaching, services like drawing blood or administering immunizations, and case management. These workers also tend to belong to or have a close, trusting relationship with their communities, allowing them to act as liaisons between residents and healthcare systems.

Prompted by the pandemic, Wayne Health launched its Mobile Health Unit in 2020 to pilot a new approach to addressing disparities in urban healthcare with its mobile units. 

Unfortunately, staffing became an immediate issue.

“We realized early on after getting funded that community health workers are in fairly short supply,” Dr. McCaughtry said. “We advertised numerous times and would not get many people applying, so we realized we needed to recruit people who would like to become community health workers.”

Challenges finding people to fill community health positions aren’t unique to metro Detroit –  it’s a nationwide issue. And the need for workers in this sector is only expected to rise over the coming decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for community health workers and health education specialists is projected to grow 12 percent between 2021 and 2031. 

Meanwhile, the State of Michigan is looking into getting federal authorization for community health workers’ services reimbursable through Medicaid and Medicare, which is likely to increase demand even more statewide.   

Wayne State University established the CHW Academy to meet this growing demand with the assistance of a $2.6 million federal grant. 

The university is one of only 83 organizations nationwide to receive this grant. Wayne State is using the funding for a three-year initiative to train 140 people who will help expand the CHW workforce in Southeast Michigan.

Under the initiative, the academy partners with local organizations to recruit, certify, train and place trainees in federally sanctioned apprenticeships and internships. Individuals must first be hired by an employer partnering with Wayne State to participate in the initiative. The training is then tailored to fit the needs of these organizations.  

Participants engage in certification instruction developed by the Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance and training based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Core Competencies, which include topics like health equity, social determinants of health, and public health emergency response. 

The CHW certification involves 101 hours of direct instruction, typically virtually, and 25 hours of independent study. Those who have not worked previously as community health workers must also participate in a 40-hour internship.

Participants get a $6,500 stipend as an incentive, with $3,000 payable upon certification, and the remainder paid out after spending one year working for their organization as a community health worker.

‘Bringing great value

Wayne State graduated its first official cohort of six students in January. These graduates, including Hollins, work with Wayne Health’s  Mobile Health Unit program. 

Since its launch, the academy has attracted the attention of various local healthcare organizations. These include Community Health Awareness Group (CHAG), a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on HIV prevention and care services within the city’s African-American population, which currently has a cohort of 10 employees enrolled at the academy. 

CHAG’s director, Cindy Bolden Calhoun, who is participating in the training herself, is excited about what the certification means for her staff.

Cindy Bollen, director of Community Health Awareness Group (CHAG), a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on HIV prevention. Photo by Doug Coombe.

“This program allows them not just to be certified HIV counselors, but certified community health workers, which raises the bar a bit,” she says. “And as HIV moves to managed care, it allows those same workers who worked hard in HIV to be able to work on other health issues. I think it’ll bring great value to us as an organization and the community.” 

Dr. Porsche Fischer, CHW Academy Education & Evaluation Manager for Wayne State University, says interest in the program is high, and several new cohorts are now in the wings. She believes that bodes well for the future of community health in Southeast Michigan.

“This is just the beginning for the Community Health Worker Academy,” Fischer said. “We’re looking forward to training as many community health workers as possible. Research has shown they really make a positive impact. And we know there are so many communities that are deserving of that attention and care.”


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