When patients enrolled in Medicaid programs need care, they often can’t get it. From lack of access to transportation and affordable housing to confusing paperwork and historic mistrust of the healthcare system, many barriers prevent people receiving Medicaid from accessing the care they need.
Erica Ponder, Community Health Worker (CHW) Lead at Waymark, wants to change that. Having previously worked as a medical outreach worker for a large health system and nonprofit, she became frustrated with this disconnect and understood that the best way to help people in her community was through a hyperlocal, team-based approach.
In this interview, Erica shares her personal story. She tells us why she was inspired to seek a career in public health, and why she’s passionate about improving health equity at Waymark.
What is a community health worker?
Community health workers (CHWs) are frontline public health workers who are trusted by the communities they serve. We typically live and work in the same communities as our patients, and this understanding allows us to serve as an intermediary between them and the broader healthcare system. We conduct outreach, accompany patients to their medical appointments, help connect them to community resources, and so much more. In doing so, we help providers build relationships with patients through hyperlocal and culturally competent care.
Put another way, a CHW is a bridge. We’re the connection between the people we serve and the equitable access to healthcare they deserve. We seek to improve the lives of our patients and uplift our communities. We bring empathy and compassion to the spaces in healthcare where individuals feel unseen, unheard and forgotten.
What inspired you to pursue a career in public health?
My first job after I graduated college was as a patient services representative for a large health system in Virginia. I did everything from scheduling medical appointments and updating patient logs to managing our office supplies. I realized that I really enjoyed working in healthcare and decided to attain a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) to deepen my knowledge. After I completed my MPH, I knew I needed more “real world” experience and found a job as a medical outreach worker at the same health system where I started my career.
This was an eye-opening experience for me. The concept of “social determinants of health” that I was taught in class was now a reality I observed in the lived experiences of my patients. I realized on a daily basis that things like transportation to medical appointments, access to a pharmacist, or safe and affordable housing — basic necessities that most people take for granted — aren’t accessible to the people who need them most. More importantly, I saw firsthand how a lack of access to these necessities was negatively impacting their health. This experience inspired me to both educate and advocate for my community in spaces and places where individuals are overlooked by the healthcare system but deserve so much more. I’m inspired to fight the good fight of equitable healthcare access for everyone.
What brought you to Waymark?
One of the things I’ve seen while working in the healthcare sector is that there’s a consistent pattern of silos — between people, teams, functions, organizations, and even industries. Structures and systems that have been in place for dozens of years have been siloed from other parts of healthcare and even the communities they’re supposed to serve. I think a lack of collaboration and openness to change are two of the main drivers of health disparities today.
In contrast, my experience as a CHW revealed that the key to addressing health disparities in our communities lies in partnerships and collaboration. Waymark’s model aligns with my belief that we need to bring together different groups to achieve better outcomes for our communities. We seek to partner with payers, providers, and community organizations — not replace them. We take a team-based approach to serving our patients. As gaps in access and quality of care widen, I see Waymark’s approach as a solution to achieving better health equity and outcomes for people in my community. That’s what brought me here.
How has your experience working with both nonprofits and large health systems made you a better CHW?
Working in a large health system allowed me to see the acute day-to-day needs of people in my community, including the need to give them the knowledge and tools to feel empowered to manage their health. I was also able to build my own knowledge of community resources and found a niche for problem-solving, action-planning, and patient advocacy. When I was working for a nonprofit, I had to change my perspective from focusing on the immediate needs of my community to developing longer-term initiatives for bigger and more sustainable impact.
Both experiences have taught me the importance of being able to simultaneously zoom-in and zoom-out as a CHW. You have to fully understand the day-to-day needs and experiences of the patients we serve, but also help build the infrastructure and programs to achieve long-term health equity within the community.
Can you share an example of how your team has helped a patient at Waymark?
We recently met with a patient who was initially hesitant to work with Waymark. Our CHW took the time to understand their needs, explain how we could help, and build trust with the patient. The patient agreed to work with us, and our CHW actually accompanied them to the ER to address a surgical complication they had been dealing with for months. The ER doctor recommended an overnight hospital admission for observation, and while the patient was extremely nervous and had legitimate fear of undergoing another surgery, our CHW was able to address these concerns with the provider and get the patient to come in the next day after she arranged childcare for her son. Our care coordinator scheduled transportation for the patient, and we worked with our in-house clinical pharmacist to ensure they had their medications and weren’t at risk for further complications once they were discharged.
This story is a shining example of how our team-based approach is an absolute game-changer for patients. By taking the time to build trust with patients and working as a team in partnership with providers, we can achieve better health outcomes and equity for our community.