Reducing Health Disparities

Health Advocates: Promoting Good Health as a Basic Human Right

It is a chronic problem not easy to fix. Why do certain populations continue to remain sick despite state-of-the-art hospital care and emergency treatment?  Why do they leave the hospital in better condition, some fully healed, only to return later in the year with more health issues?

Clinicians at Alameda Health Advocates - NeedsSystem (AHS) had their hunches and in many cases clear evidence that Highland’s patient population, many of whom are of low socioeconomic status, had overwhelming challenges to daily living.  Their health concerns pale in the face of a lack of adequate housing, inability to afford healthy food, safety concerns and a host of other factors that create significant, often impenetrable, barriers to good health.

Learn More About the Health Inequalities Some AHS Patients Experience.

These same Highland medical providers posed that if these patients could have their social, economic and legal needs addressed, their health would improve. Sounds simple, yet these solutions are traditionally outside the purview of medicine.

Once again demonstrating the spirit of innovation that permeates AHS, medical providers and social workers threw this tradition out on its ear.

They teamed to create a volunteer program—Highland Health Advocates (Heath Advocates as of 2015)—that is designed to aid and address patients’ social, legal and economic needs. The program leverages the skills and energy of students from local undergraduate and graduate programs to connect patients to community resources that help them get the support they need, and improve their health for the long-term.

Student volunteers work with patients to assess their needs—such as, food, housing, transportation, and public benefits. Then, under the supervision of social workers and lawyers, they help patients find and gain access to useful community resources.

Take, for example, patient Hervey L. whose health worsened when he lost his disability benefits earlier this year. For the 59-year-old Hervey, his congestive heart failure and high blood pressure were a distant second to more pressing concerns: “I don’t know how I am going to pay rent, how I’m going to eat,” he said.

Why This Program Matters

AHS’s Health Advocates demonstrates the best of coordinated and collaborative patient care.  The effort involves not only the volunteers, but also providers in AHS’s Social Services Department, Emergency Department, and HOPE Center, which serves patients who have high rates of hospitalization, as well as attorneys from AHS’s partner organization, the East Bay Community Law Center.

On any given day, a volunteer might help a patient apply for CalFresh (California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP), get an appointment at a local food bank, or find stable and safe housing. With supervision from staff of the East Bay Community Law Center, volunteers provide legal support and referrals to patients facing such issues as eviction, unsanitary housing, and termination of their public benefits. The volunteers also make follow-up calls to ensure that each patient’s needs have been met and offer further assistance, as needed.

For the students, helping these patients is an invaluable supplement to their education and future careers. They provide help to patients not only in negotiating the challenges of everyday living, but in increasing their chances of improving their health status in the long-term. Further, the volunteers free up Highland’s social work staff to attend to the patients’ more complex needs, thus better leveraging these scarce and vital resources.

And, this support is truly appreciated by Highland’s patients.  JiaLing C., a 63-year-old Fremont resident and Highland patient, spoke for many when she stated that at the very least, it’s comforting to have the advocates there every time she visits. “They are doing the best they can for you. And if they can’t help, they refer me to the people they think can,” she said. “I just feel like they are my guardian angels.”

Join us by investing in providing care for all, by holistically caring for patients in addressing all their needs.


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