healthcare workers crossing their arms

The Departments of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh are collaborating on a project called THRIVE: Treating HeaRing and Improving Vision: Education. Thanks to a grant from the Eden Hall Foundation, community health workers will be key to increasing access to care for vision and hearing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes community health workers as promoting wellness by helping people adopt healthy behaviors. They also “implement programs and advocate for people who may have limited access to health resources and social services,” the description continues.

A 2023 article in the Annual Review of Public Health, “Community Health Worker Integration with and Effectiveness in Health Care and Public Health in the United States,” says that community health workers are being increasingly recognized as an essential health workforce. They “share life experience with the people they serve and have firsthand knowledge of the causes and impacts of health inequity. They provide a critical link between marginalized communities and health care and public health services. Several studies have demonstrated that CHWs can improve the management of chronic conditions, increase access to preventive care, improve patients’ experience of care, and reduce health care costs. CHWs can also advance health equity by addressing social needs and advocating for systems and policy change.”

No wonder employment of community health workers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With the THRIVE project, hearing and vision specialists have teamed up with community health workers to bring hearing and vision support into communities. This is important because hearing loss and vision impairment are among the most common conditions experienced by older adults, according to Elaine Mormer, PhD, CCC-A, Associate Professor and Clinical Education Coordinator for Audiology in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders, School of Health & Rehabilitation, and part of the THRIVE team. These conditions are invisible disabilities that interfere with participation, independence, and enjoyment of life, she added. Additionally, they often lead to other health issues, such as depression, confusion, loneliness, and anxiety.

“Many people in communities around Pittsburgh do not have access to information, support, or services related to hearing loss and vision impairment,” Dr. Mormer said.

One aim of the project is to use guidance from a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to determine the most relevant content and format for community health worker training in hearing and vision impairment topics. The second goal is to develop the learning materials and disseminate them to community health workers locally, regionally, and nationally.

In the first year of the project, the team gathered information and input about how community health workers interact with patients across Allegheny County. The CAP was formed and included community health worker educators, employers, hearing and vision specialists, and patients. The panel has met several times to generate input on the topics and format that would work best for practicing community health workers.

“Currently, the panel is in the process of reaching consensus on the topics to be included,” Dr. Mormer reported. “Once agreed upon, we will begin content development, targeted for year two.”