Community Health Workers Linked With Better Results for Patients With Type 2 Diabetes

Marcia Frellick

September 28, 2022

Adding community health workers (CHW) to a primary care setting was linked with improved type 2 diabetes management in a safety-net population, new research indicates.

The researchers, led by Robert L. Ferrer, MD, MPH, with the department of family and community medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, enrolled 986 people in a Latino, inner-city cohort in primary care in San Antonio. Patients had uncontrolled type 2 diabetes and psychosocial risk factors. The study was published in Annals of Family Medicine.

The primary outcome measured was whether patients progressed through three stages of self-care: outreach (meeting face to face with a community health care worker), stabilization (collaborating with community health care workers to address life circumstances), and a third stage the researchers called "self-care generativity" (being able to manage blood sugar levels at home). The intervention lasted up to 12 weeks and had a 4-year follow-up.

Of participating patients, the researchers reported, 27% remained in outreach, 41% progressed to stabilization, 32% achieved self-care generativity status.

Coauthor Carlos Roberto Jaén, MD, PhD, also from the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, said in an interview, "I don't know any other intervention for diabetes that has 32% of participants having this kind of effect 4 years later."

Jaén added that the study is unusual in that it had a 4-year follow-up and showed positive effects throughout that period, as most CHW studies have followed patients only up to one year.

The positive results over the 4 years after a short intervention "is a testimony of the power of intervention," he said.

A1c Drops With More Progress in the Intervention

The secondary outcome was change in hemoglobin A1c and need for urgent care or emergency department or hospital care.

Study participants who worked with a CHW – regardless of which group they were in at the end of the intervention – collectively saw a 2% drop in blood sugar.

Over a similar time period to when the study was conducted, the researchers analyzed 27,000 A1c measurements of patients with type 2 diabetes in a comparator group. For these patients, who did not receive the study intervention but were part of the same practice as those who received the intervention, the researchers observed a reduction in A1c levels of 0.05%.

Among the study participants, for those who remained in outreach, hospital visits were 6% higher than for those who advanced to the level of self-care generativity, but this difference was not statistically significant. Hospital visits were 90% higher for those who achieved stabilization versus those who remained in outreach (P = .014) The average count of emergency department visits was 74% higher for those who achieved stabilization versus those who achieved self-care generativity, and 31% higher in the group remaining at outreach versus those who reached the highest level of self-care.

Advantages of Community Workers

In San Antonio, the authors noted, type 2 diabetes prevalence is high: 15.5% of its 1.6 million residents have been diagnosed with the disease.

The CHWs built trust with patients and helped them set goals, navigate the health system and connect to community resources. They worked with behavioral health clinicians, nurse care managers, and medical assistants toward population management.

"Community health workers' detailed understanding of patients' circumstances help to tailor their care rather than apply fixed interventions," the authors wrote.

Ricardo Correa, MD, director of the endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism fellowship program in the University of Arizona, Phoenix, who was not involved with the study, said in an interview he was not surprised by the positive results.

He described the difference when CHWs get involved with type 2 diabetes care, particularly in the Latino community.

"They understand the culture, not just the language," he said. "They have the trust of the community."

It's different when a provider not from the community tells a person with type 2 diabetes he or she needs to eat healthier or exercise more, he said.

The CHW can understand, for instance, that the nearest fresh market may be two towns away and open only on Saturdays and the parks are not safe for exercise outside at certain times of the day. Then they can help the patient find a sustainable solution.

"Community workers also won't be looking at your immigration status," something important to many in the Latino community, he explained.

Though this study looked at type 2 diabetes management, community health workers are also effective in other areas, he explained, such as increasing COVID-19 vaccinations, also do them being trustworthy and understanding.

Other Study Strengths

The group of people with type 2 diabetes they studied has the highest rates of poverty – "the poorest of the poor" – and the highest rates of diabetes-related amputations in San Antonio, Jaén said.

The intervention "is more focused on what people want to do, less so on the disease," he explained. People are asked what goals they want to achieve and how the care team can help.

"It becomes an alliance between the community health worker and the patient," he continued.

Others interested in implementing a program should know that building that relationship takes time and takes a broad multidisciplinary team working together, he said. "We would not necessarily see these effects in 6 months. You have to use a larger perspective."

The researchers include with this study under the first-page tab "more online" access to tools, including resources for training, for others who want to implement such a program.

The study authors and Correa reported no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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