Community Health Workers Are Helping Minnesotans Access Better Care

Optivation’s Northwest Indian Community Development Center cohort of Community Health Worker students on their last day of classroom work at NTC.

Northern Minnesota residents are receiving much-needed help accessing health care services as a result of training provided by Northwest Technical College and Optivation, a custom college and outreach training venture operated jointly by the college and Bemidji State University.

In late June, Optivation wrapped up classroom work for two cohorts of students pursuing Community Health Worker certificates – one group as part of a partnership with Bemidji’s Northern Dental Access Center funded by a Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grant, and a second providing opportunities for women in the region through a partnership with the Northwest Indian Community Development Center.

“Community Health Workers are a new position created out of industry need,” said Kerry Ross, executive director of Optivation. “They support patients and help them navigate our complicated health care system.”

In addition improving access to services, Community Health Workers are increasingly important in helping service providers create culturally competent outreach and enrollment strategies.

“Elderly or mentally challenged people may need help to improve their lifestyle,” said Jean Mellum, instructor for the classroom cohort. “Community Health Workers can teach them about healthy lifestyles and can help them get to appointments.”

Mellum said that in addition to their roles as liaisons and mentors, Community Health Workers can assist their clients understand diagnoses, medications and treatments, and can provide guidance to referrals for a variety of issues such as help with living arrangements or food and transportation.

“Community Health Workers must have the knowledge and abilities to work with clients of all ages and various cultures,” she said.

NOrthern Dental Access Center

Through a grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership that totaled $151,475 in cash and in-kind contributions, Optivation has been providing Community Health Worker training to a group of staff from Bemidji’s Northern Dental Access Center. The non-profit agency is operated by a consortium of community members who are committed to assuring access to dental care for all children and families in the region.

“We have been doing patient-advocacy since we opened,” said Jeanne Edevold Larson, executive director of the Northern Dental Access Center. “We want to be in tune to the cues patients might give, and we wanted to see if we could take what we were doing to the next level.”

Larson said she directly attributes recent increases in efficiency at the clinic to the Community Health Worker training program.

“A year ago at this time, we thought we had reached our capacity, as we understood it, in this building,” she said. “But since our staff started this training, we’ve been able to fill 25 percent more patient appointments. That has to be correlated with increased efficiency.”

Larson said the training has allowed the center’s front-desk staff to improve its communication with patients and help the staff understand patient needs. As a result of the efficiencies gained from better understanding what services patients need and how patients wish to receive those services, the clinic has managed more walk-ins, seen fewer no-shows for appointments and has had higher filled-seat rates.

The group was taught by Wendy Potratz, an NTC faculty member who leads the college’s Community Health Worker program. She helped the center’s staff identify previous courses they had taken that would help them meet an elective requirement to take either a public speaking or computer skills course.

“These credits for prior learning helped conserve grant money that was used to create a third option a health-centric communications class,” Ross said.

Potratz will now work through the process to add the health communications course as a credit option for NTC students.

“The new course will be more applicable to the work done by CHWs more than computers or public speaking,” Ross said. “This would not have happened if Wendy had not wanted to try and find ways to get credit for previous courses.”

Northwest Indian Community Development Center

A partnership with Bemidji’s Northwest Indian Community Development Center allowed Optivation to offer Community Health Worker training to a group of nine women from communities across the region. The group has completed 14 credit hours of classroom work and now is moving into a required 80-hour internship before completing Community Health Worker certificate programs. The grant-supported program has allowed these women to pursue their educations tuition-free.

“This group has barriers they face – homelessness, extreme poverty, childcare issues, working multiple jobs,” Ross said. “For example, one student worked an overnight shift and then came immediately to class.”

Lisa Gullicksen Kingbird, a student in the program, saw the Community Health Worker certificate program as opening a new career path after spending the last 13 years cooking in bars and grilles throughout the area.

“It seemed like a light at the end of a deep-frying tunnel,” she said of the program. “My mom was a community health representative for the reservation. I want to follow in my mother’s footsteps and do community-based work. Hopefully I can be as good as she was.”

She says her success in the program is especially gratifying after having tried several times to continue her education, but finding life’s roadblocks in her path.

“A few times I have tried to go to college, but work and kids made it a struggle,” she said. “Now that my children are older it’s easier, but financially it’s still a struggle because of the bills that come with a family and a home, and then the funds needed to go to class and to work. There are times I didn’t think I would get this far.”

Students in the program are pursuing their internships at locations throughout the Bemidji region, including Leech Lake Public Health Nursing, the Community Health Worker program at Bemidji’s Sanford Health Care, at mission churches, and at Bemidji-area service organizations such as the People’s Church and the Oshki Manidoo treatment center.

Gullicksen Kingbird says that while the group is going its separate ways to pursue their internships, the relationships she made with the other women in her class will endure.

“This has shown me that I am not the only single parent out there. They have given me strength and inspired me,” she said of her classmates. “We build each other up by talking about our situations. I’m going to miss them all. I learned quite a bit from all of them.”


MNState-75x150Northwest Technical College, located in northern Minnesota’s lake district, is an open, inviting technological learning organization. For more than 40 years, the college has valued life-long learning and the worth and dignity of all people. The college serves 900 students with a high-quality education, an open-enrollment policy and affordable tuition. NTC offers nearly 60 degree, diploma and certificate programs in areas such as business, health, human and protective services and environmental and industrial technology. Classes are offered on the Bemidji campus, online, or as a combination of both. NTC is a member of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities.


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