St. Luke's and AHS: A community health partnership

St. Luke's and AHS: A community health partnership

March 24th, 2021

By Patsy Whitney
Executive Director, St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic

For the past decade, AccessHealth Spartanburg and St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic have worked to forge a partnership that supports access to medical care and other essential services for low-income, uninsured adults in our community. The two organizations have distinct roles to play in this partnership: AHS provides comprehensive case management and connects its clients to a host of service providers and organizations; St. Luke’s serves as one of those organizations, providing primary care to about 1,700 AHS clients annually.

The collaborative approach has helped each organization focus on what it does best, avoid duplication of services, and increase our impact. Indeed, we are working together to improve health outcomes and build a healthier, stronger Spartanburg for everyone.

This partnership has evolved over the years and all of St. Luke’s patients are now also clients of AccessHealth. This has enabled St. Luke’s to focus strictly on meeting the medical needs of our patients while AccessHealth assists them with social issues.

Now our partnership is growing even stronger. AHS will soon start funding a Community Health Worker position at St. Luke’s. The places where people live, learn, work, and play affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life-risks and outcomes. Recognizing that, South Carolina free clinics are now beginning to use Community Health Workers to assess social determinants of health. A Community Health Worker was on our staffing “wish list” and thanks to AccessHealth/SRHS, we will be able to offer this service on-site!

Erica Brown, who currently serves as a Patient Resource Specialist at St. Luke’s, will transition soon to the CHW position. When that transition is complete, St. Luke’s will join what is hoped to be a growing list of community organizations who employ at least one community health worker.

“What I have found through my roles at St. Luke’s is that every patient is unique in terms of their needs,” Brown said. “There is no one-size-fits-all when caring for our patients. Some patients may only just need access to care while others may need more resources to help them navigate the barriers they are facing. We want to meet patients where they are and I am excited to be able to support these clients and provide a more comprehensive approach to their overall needs.”

Until now, community health workers from AccessHealth have been going to St. Luke’s to meet clients there, but because they were not stationed there permanently, there “were some gaps when clients would come in,” AHS Director Summer Tebalt said. “Their nurse practitioner has been pushing for a community health worker to be there full-time. The CHW positions are the most effective when it comes to meeting the community where they are. If we really follow the model of using people from within the community they serve, they are able to much more quickly establish trust and rapport with the clients they are trying to reach and engage with their healthcare options.”

Brown will handle immediate concerns in the St. Luke’s office, then refer clients back to AHS for more case management if necessary, Tebalt said. Community health workers are uniquely qualified to address barriers to care and other issues immediately as they arise and/or become known. All of which helps ensure a person’s care plan isn’t sidetracked.

“As a provider we see patients from all walks of life here at St. Luke's Free Medical Clinic,” said Japonica Owens, St. Luke’s nurse practitioner. “We see patients who are new to the area, returning back to the area, rehabilitated and are being reintroduced back into society, people who have just lost a job, lost their health insurance, newly divorced, disabled, and other unfortunate circumstances. There are resources available, but the patients may not be aware, their family members may not be aware, and even providers may not be aware of all the resources. So having a CHW on board means our patients will be able to tap into and use the available resources out there to help optimize their health as well as improve their quality of life.”

Having a full-time, on-site community health worker will also help Owens be more effective by helping keep her focus on clinical care:

“A CHW can help me by making sure the patient understands the medical regimen, making sure the patient understands how to call in prescriptions, checking in with patients between visits to see if they need any additional resources, making sure patients are getting to their appointments, answering questions and closing the communication gap. Patient needs go beyond just medication and medical needs. Those needs may be social and can interfere with the patient getting better. But CHWs help the patient tap into the community resources that can improve their life and maybe even save their life. "

At St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic, we value and are proud of our relationship with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System and AccessHealth Spartanburg. We look forward to working together as partners for many years to come — together, we are making a big difference in the lives of many people!

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