Bridging the Gap: Neighbors Supporting Neighbors in Harlem

This guest post is by Manmeet Kaur, Founder and Executive Director of City Health Works — a nonprofit, social enterprise that aims to close the gap between hospitals and communities in Harlem.

Manmeet KaurIn order for health to flourish, we need people in our lives that make us feel supported and accepted. Social support is essential to well-being and plays a fundamental role in one’s ability to make healthier choices—it is a critical aspect of making health a shared value. Unfortunately, only half of adults in the U.S. report getting the social support they need. Those numbers are even lower among minority groups and those with lower levels of education and income.

In many countries around the world, however, communities already employ effective approaches that have demonstrated impact. In Cape Town, South Africa, for example, I worked with a nonprofit that hired people from the community and trained them as peer health educators to tackle chronic health issues. This is where I first witnessed the power of peer education and the ripple effect such educators have not only on an individual’s health, but also on other aspects of their lives.

When I returned to my hometown of New York City, I immediately saw the potential to adapt this model of health care delivery from abroad and apply it to my neighborhood here in East Harlem. This is a neighborhood in which life expectancy is 9 years lower than the life expectancy of residents of midtown Manhattan. 50% of healthcare spending in this community is on only 5% of the population. The level of chronic illness in this community is so great that clinicians struggle to deliver the high-quality care patients need. They often aren’t able to support patients through the necessary long-term nutritional and behavioral changes to keep chronic illness under check. They are completely overburdened.

That’s where City Health Works comes in.

Inspired by community health worker innovations from South Africa, City Health Works engages community members to serve as the bridge between the doctor’s office and the real challenges people with chronic illnesses face on an ongoing basis. We don’t replace traditional medical care. We simply fill a gap between the health care system and the everyday lives of the people that system is meant to serve.

We start by finding and employing individuals living within the neighborhood who have a strong sense of empathy and good listening skills, are non-judgmental in nature, and can speak to shared life experiences. We train them to become health coaches: we teach them how to build relationships with their patients and truly get to know their needs, which often go beyond health and health care. In addition to receiving training on basic health care in a clinical environment, health coaches learn how to make referrals to services like banking and housing, and recommendations for recreational activities, such as local walking groups, knitting clubs, and bingo nights.

Hospitals and clinics can refer patients directly to us. They refer individuals who struggle with multiple chronic diseases and the stressors of poverty, old age, physical and mental limitations, and language or literacy barriers. Most of them experience depression and struggle with social isolation.

We pair each patient with one of our health coaches so they can receive personalized support and the resources they need to make healthy choices. Initially, there is some hesitation on the part of patients. Health choices are, after all, deeply personal. But once they learn that their coach is from the same neighborhood, they grew up down the street from them, or they even live in their same housing complex, they become more comfortable. Trust is assumed and they open up.

Today, our health coaches meet one-on-one with more than 300 patients in East Harlem on a regular basis. Over the first two years of the program, we measured depression levels amongst our patients and found that simply having a health coach who visits them regularly had a huge effect on their social and emotional well-being. Coaches have a powerful ability to motivate their patients, help them build self-confidence, and strengthen their ability to manage their lifestyle and medical care. We are proving that adding extra support for those who need it most not only saves money, but saves lives.

By adopting practices from outside of the U.S.––an approach for which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is now actively seeking proposals––City Health Works has been able to provide critical social support for the people in New York City who need it most. We are changing attitudes about the role of community, fostering health as a shared value, and changing our patient’s expectations about the level of care they should be getting. By fostering an engaged community, we are breaking through the walls of isolation and building a Culture of Health.