When Tammie Hall first began her journey as a community health worker, she felt a little overwhelmed and nervous.
But as soon as she got started, she felt differently. As she put it: “There is no other job for me.”
Tammie has worked as a community health worker since 2015 in various states, moving from rural to suburban to urban locations. She’s now working as a community health worker in Wilmington for NHRMC, now a part of Novant Health. The heart of the job, she says, is always the same: People need community health workers to bridge the gaps between their other healthcare providers. For Tammie – and for her clients– it’s some of the most important work in health care today.
NHRMC began using community health workers in late 2020, funded by a grant from the N.C. Office of Rural Health. The team has now grown to six community health workers and is currently hiring for two open positions.
“Our mission has challenged us to find ways to transform from hospital-based care and move into the community where our patients live, work and play,” said Scott Whisnant, administrator of community relations.
Community health workers have their roots in African countries, where they served as a go-between for patients who often lived a very different life far away from their doctors. The community health workers understood the perspectives and experiences of both the patient and the doctor and could translate – sometimes literally, sometimes culturally – and help the patient overcome any social barriers that could hinder their care.
Tammie describes her work in a similar way.
“Sometimes there are little things medical professionals can’t address for every patient,” she said. “Having a community health worker be able to sit with a patient at their appointment and in their home gives them an idea of what the patient is experiencing outside of the doctor’s office, then translate that back to the providers to help create a picture.”
It’s a two-way street, Tammie said: “It’s being the voice for the people, but it’s also letting the community know that the doctors do care. Doctors aren’t brushing you off. They need support as well – someone who can go into the home and find out why Mrs. Jones is not taking her insulin. Sometimes we find out that Mrs. Jones is not really clear on what the insulin is supposed to do.”
Every day looks different for Hall because all of her clients have different needs. But there’s one commonality: She does a lot of listening. And she’ll often do that listening while helping her clients in another way – moving furniture for them, sweeping their porch, even brushing one client’s hair and laying down her edges for her.
One client, Candra Carter, has known Tammie for a few months. Claudia wears prosthetics and often needs help getting to her appointments in Chapel Hill, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Wilmington. Tammie often accompanies Claudia to her appointments – but she also does so much more, Claudia said.
“She knows me more on a personal level because she’s gone to my appointments, knowing what I go through and knowing what I have to deal with day to day,” Claudia said.
Asked how Claudia would describe to a friend what Tammie does, she said: “If you need any help with anything, she would do whatever it takes to get you what you need. If she can’t do it herself, she will find somebody who can. From personal experience, she would be the best person you could come across.”
That listening ear and willingness to help with personal tasks builds a significant amount of trust between Tammie and her clients. She feels almost like they’re her aunts and uncles, and she can say things to them in the way that a beloved family member would.
“It’s not about telling them they’re wrong. It’s not about telling them they need fixing,” Tammie said. “It’s just changing certain habits, just putting new thought processes out there. I’m not coming in with a suit and tie; I’m not making them feel like I’m a figure they have to fear. I’m just a regular community person coming in to see how I can assist you.”
The community engagement department receives referrals for the community health worker program from internal partners at the hospital and primary care offices within the NHRMC system. The program also works with community partners, such as the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center, faith communities, and Wilmington Fire Department, for external referrals. For questions about the program, please contact Sarah Arthur, manager of community engagement, at [email protected].