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How Community Health Workers Impact Diabetes Care

Published: 9/13/21
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By Andrew Briskin

Two major factors that lead to poor outcomes for people with diabetes are food insecurity and a lack of social support. Community health workers can address these issues, connecting people with diabetes to the resources they need.

Community health workers (CHWs) play a crucial role in addressing public health, particularly in communities with lower socioeconomic status and higher rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes. Two of the most significant social determinants of health impacting these communities – food insecurity and social support – can have a profound effect on the ability of people with diabetes to manage their condition. CHWs can play a direct role in addressing these factors by connecting people with resources to access healthy foods, helping them advocate for themselves, providing nutrition education, and connecting with and supporting individuals on a personal and community-wide level.

CHWs are typically members of the communities they serve, who are sometimes in a paid position and other times work as volunteers. Because of how important it is for CHWs to identify and communicate with the people in their community, they typically share the same background, ethnicity, and language. CHWs work in many locations throughout the community, which can include health clinics, government facilities, churches, food banks, other community centers/events, or traveling throughout the area.

Food insecurity is an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the US Department of Agriculture. People who deal with food insecurity are often only able to afford low-quality foods that lack nutritional value, have access to only a limited food variety, or have disrupted eating patterns (where you aren’t able to eat multiple balanced meals each day). For people with diabetes, these eating habits can be especially harmful when trying to manage things like weight and blood sugar.

Food insecurity, which is a growing problem throughout the United States, has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Estimates for 2020 indicate that over 50 million people (or one in every six people) dealt with food insecurity in the United States, an increase of 4.1% since 2018. Rates of food insecurity among people with diabetes are also higher than the national average, with estimates suggesting that one in five people with diabetes face food insecurity during any given year, even without the COVID-19 pandemic adding additional stress.

At the ADCES 2021 conference last month, Dr. Anjulyn Ballard, a research and evaluation fellow at the CDC involved in advancing work of CHWs, said, “By CHWs addressing food insecurity and social support, health disparities can decrease significantly within communities.”

Dr. Betsy Rodriguez, senior public health advisor at the CDC Division of Diabetes who trains CHWs, focusing on reaching ethnic minorities and bilingual health communities, joined Dr. Ballard in the presentation. She said of CHWs, “Their advocacy can impact many healthcare-related issues such as improving health while lowering healthcare costs, improving access to primary care, and increasing screening for major conditions such as diabetes, just to name a few.”

Together, they outlined a few of the ways CHWs play an important role in addressing food insecurity and social support in the populations they serve. These roles include:

  • Advocating for individuals and communities. This involves connecting people with helpful resources while also encouraging people to advocate on their own behalf.

  • Conducting outreach. It’s important for CHWs to establish trust through regular communication with individuals in the community.

  • Coordinating access to healthcare. This includes making referrals to healthcare providers, ensuring that people make it to their appointments, and serving as a liaison between the clinics and the individuals assuring as many people as possible get the care they need.

  • Providing coaching and general social support. CHWs should be able to inform people on where to find community forums or others in the community that can provide social support.

  • Providing culturally appropriate health education. This means helping people understand the guidance they receive from their healthcare provider (for example if there are language or education barriers) and providing advice that considers the food, language, and traditions of the specific community they serve.

  • Addressing financial hardship and environmental needs. This involves encouraging people to apply for benefits such as SNAP and assisting them in the application process.

diaTribe recently spoke with Quisha Umemba, founder of Umemba Health, an organization that recruits and trains CHWs in Texas. A certified CHW instructor and diabetes care and education specialist, Umemba discussed how CHWs can support community members in addressing food insecurity and social support.

“CHWs can help people with diabetes advocate for better nutrition and food choices in their community,” Umemba said. “Often, people don’t know they can approach store managers or owners and request a different selection of foods. They also may not know how to approach their local representation in government or how to start a community petition to address issues like food insecurity.”

CHWs can also connect people with diabetes to their local food bank or farmer’s market to get the food they need. “They can provide nutrition education as well,” Umemba added. “Sometimes clients might have access to healthier foods but they don’t always know how to cook them.”

Not sure where to start? At findhelp.org you can enter your zip code and be immediately connected with food assistance, help paying bills, legal aid, and other free or reduced cost programs.

Increasing CHW engagement that focuses on specific interventions can help promote health equity. Unfortunately, there is still a great need for additional funding and resources for CHWs, especially during the pandemic.

Drs. Ballard and Rodriguez said the pandemic has negatively impacted the ability of CHWs to perform their roles. COVID-19 presented the challenge of providing specific pandemic-related support to communities without the necessary funding or virtual resources, they said. Plus, the economic hardships caused by COVID-19 led to an increased number of people requesting assistance from their CHWs with food, transportation, and financial issues.

Umemba agreed. “So much of what CHWs do revolves around establishing a trusted relationship with their clients,” she said. “It was difficult at the onset of the pandemic, but I believe for the most part that CHWs now see that personal interactions don’t just have to occur ‘in-person.’”

Drs. Ballard and Rodriguez also recommended specific interventions to better combat food insecurity and social support on the community level, such as developing standardized training and increasing funding for CHWs across the board. Umemba supported these interventions, lamenting the lack of federal regulations to support standardized training.

“There is no standardized training program for CHWs at the national level, as it is mostly governed by different states,” she said. “When I think about standardized training as it relates to food insecurity, first we need to make sure that CHWs know how to screen for it as well as the other social determinants of health. Also, we need to make sure resources are provided before the patient leaves the clinic, and that appropriate follow-up takes places. CHWs can be trained to screen, assemble and provide the appropriate resources and then follow-up as needed.”

In general, getting support from a community health worker in your area can be an extremely helpful resource not only for general guidance, but to improve your health and diabetes management.

Towards the end of the conversation, Umemba discussed her start in the field, making new observations on the interactions between people with diabetes and various members of the healthcare team such as fitness trainers, dieticians, nurses, and CHWs. Noting how each of these experts was able to connect with people with diabetes, Umemba observed that “year after year, virtually every single biometric including BMI, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc., was better in the group taught by CHWs.”

She concluded that “the more charismatic and identifiable the instructor was, the better the participants did. There are plenty of people taking care of a person’s medical needs but not nearly enough people taking care of a person’s social needs. That’s why I’m such a big cheerleader for CHWs.”

If you need assistance related to food, shelter, healthcare, or financial resources, visit our “Affording Diabetes” resource page. On the right sidebar, you can find a helpful tool that allows you to enter your zip code and connect with a variety of resources in your area.

About the authors

Andrew Briskin joined the diaTribe Foundation in 2021 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Health and Societies . Briskin is an Editor for diaTribe Learn.... Read the full bio »

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