A matter of trust: Community health workers in West Philly

As part of the Penn Medicine at Home enterprise, community health workers are one element of Penn’s initiatives to deliver quality care and improve health outside hospital walls.

An elderly woman can’t afford a ride to her doctor’s appointment, so Norma Gerald picks up the phone to help get her there. If an individual is seeking ways to stay motivated with an exercise plan, she’ll be their gym buddy for the day. If people are gathered at the scene of a violent crime, she’s on the scene with a sympathetic ear and the name of a good counselor.

Norma Gerald.
Norma Gerald is a a senior community health worker at Penn Medicine. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

The entire nation knows West Philadelphia as a wellspring of Black history and culture but generations of gentrification, mass incarceration, and other factors in the heavily Black community have created persistent barriers to good health and well-being. As a West Philly resident herself, Gerald knows these challenges well—and how to tap into the strengths and resources of the community and its people to overcome them.

The tools may not be splashy, but they are powerful forces for good in West Philly. It’s where Gerald not only lives but guides some of the city’s most at-risk people toward longer, happier, healthier lives. Gerald is a senior community health worker at Penn Medicine, and it’s all in a day’s work.

Community health workers like Gerald perform a range of functions including social support, patient advocacy, and health system navigation, all with the goal of improving health. More broadly, they form a bridge between the health care delivery system and people with limited resources, like those in West Philly, who struggle against deep health inequities, not to mention profound mistrust of a system that has often not had their best interests at heart.

“A community health worker is someone who has shared experiences with patients, who is able to connect and to understand some of the experiences they have had,” Gerald says. “We’re always following up and making sure that people are on track to meet their health goals.”

As a member of West Philly’s large Black community, and in working with patients referred to her by four Penn Medicine clinics in the area, Gerald is not just aware of but immersed in the myriad challenges that worsen health there and stymie access to care.

As part of the Penn Medicine at Home enterprise, community health workers are one element of Penn’s initiatives to deliver quality care and improve health outside hospital walls. According to Gerald, most of the patients she sees are laboring with chronic health problems including diabetes, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. Risky lifestyle behaviors like unhealthy weight management and smoking are common. This is the front line along which community health workers operate.

“We ask simple questions,” Gerald says. “We interview the patient to get a sense of who they are and what their health needs are, but also their likes and dislikes. We’re just trying to build a relationship so we can better understand where the problem is stemming from.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.