In 2019, when Becky Betts was assigned to lead population health for Providence’s southeast Washington region in Walla Walla, little did she know that in less than a year her department would become the region’s central response unit for a global pandemic.
“We were just getting our strategy off the ground when COVID-19 hit, and we had to completely pivot our focus to address the pandemic and meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community,” says Betts.
To leverage the collective strengths and resources of local organizations, Betts immediately plugged her team at Providence St. Mary Medical Center into a network of community groups that specialize in serving marginalized populations.
“There was a lot of great work happening, but local organizations and agencies were working in silos. There was very little collaboration,” says Betts.
Betts reached out to the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health to offer her team’s support to the county. She quickly connected with Samantha Jackle, Homeless Housing System Engagement Program Coordinator for the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, who knew from experience that transparency and consistency would be key to a successful partnership.
“We needed a culture shift in how we looked at problem solving and helping people. We needed to embrace collaboration,” says Jackle.
After several in-person and virtual meetings with various stakeholders at the table, the group took swift action. They partnered with local homeless shelters to expand services to 24 hours per day and organize on-site rapid COVID testing. A Providence caregiver still visits the shelters regularly to swab residents, provide other health care services and deliver personal protective equipment.
“When you’re dealing with a crisis, it is so helpful to have strong partnerships, so you aren’t doing everything alone,” says Jackle.
Simultaneously, Betts and her team recognized that while Providence caregivers delivered excellent care at the bedside and in clinics, social determinants outside of the health care setting were contributing to poorer health outcomes and repeat visits to the emergency department by under-resourced populations.
“We kept seeing the same patients in the emergency department over and over again. We knew we needed to meet patients where they are out in the community,” said Betts.
With no playbook or precedent to use as a guide, Betts again relied on community partners to help get a community health worker (CHW) program off the ground. In May 2020, two CHWs were hired to develop personal, healing relationships out in the community.
“The difference the community health workers have made in people’s lives so quickly is heartwarming. I wish we had started this program decades ago,” says Betts.
Each CHW manages roughly 40 people as part of their caseload. They have built trust by accompanying patients to appointments, advocating for their needs and connecting them with services like rent and utility assistance, food delivery and health insurance. These relationships have proven invaluable, especially in managing situations that were calmly and appropriately deescalated by trained CHWs.
As communities across southeast Washington continue to face barriers to care, Betts believes it is more vital than ever to support strong community partnerships and equip CHWs with the resources to reach everyone.
Betts and the care team at St. Mary Medical Center recognize that community-based organizations play an essential role in safeguarding a healthier future for the community, and like Jackle, they know a single entity cannot do it alone. That is why Providence continues to invest in partnerships with trusted and reliable organizations and government agencies.
“It gives the public confidence to see a major health care provider, nonprofits and the county working together to serve hard-to-reach community members,” says Betts.