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Community health navigators, medical assistants gain new respect – and billing codes

February 13th, 2019

It’s not unusual for words and phrases to fall in and out of favor in the healthcare space, but it seems once they are assigned a billing code people start to take notice. Such is the case with ‘community health navigator’. Frequently used in conjunction with the social determinants of health (SDOH), the role of a community health navigator is rightly taking on significance as the go-to solution finder for the web of challenges that can vex consumers, often in the context of primary care, seeking non-medical answers to their quality of life issues.

Community health navigators are used in a variety of outreach organizations and have operated officially or unofficially throughout the years with an array of titles; yet their foray into primary care practice teams is relatively new. That makes sense though, as understanding of the role of social determinants of health continues to evolve and take root in primary care.

While community health navigators may be degreed social workers, such a specialty is not required. I prefer to think of them as individuals with no one particular professional degree; rather, curious and empathetic fact-finders with deep knowledge of community resources that can be channeled solely or collectively to solve a problem.  An overarching qualification is a desire to be part of the upstreamist ecosystem. At the heart of their role is relationship building, connecting in a meaningful way with both patients/consumers and community organizations. Here’s just a sampling of categories where a community navigator’s admittedly fluid job description may take them:

  • Housing
  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Legal and financial assistance
  • Behavioral health
  • Elder care
  • Veterans affairs

Many thanks are due to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and other Michigan insurers for recognizing the impact that community health navigators can have on a patient’s overall health and wellness.

Beyond community health navigators, it’s interesting to note that the long-established role of medical assistant, a member of the care team, is starting to gain overdue respect as well; again, because of a billing code that reimburses for telephonic support provided by medical assistants’ services under the direction of the physician

Medical assistants, like community health navigators, are an integral part of a practice team, whether filling a clinical or non-clinical role. They work to gain a patient’s trust, sometimes introducing a patient to the practice itself as they assure patients of what they can expect on their visit and/or share the list of services and resources (such as a community health navigator) offered. Note: if your medical assistant is not empowered to act as an ambassador for the practice, you should address the situation now.  Maximizing the talents of your entire team generally results in a cohesive unit of engaged professionals focused on the practice’s shared vision of optimal patient health and wellness. (Contact info@ mednetone.net for additional information I can share.)

Back to SDOH, I’m pleased to report this critical concept will again be the focus of the Healthology Symposium at Oakland University on May 1, 2019. Presented by the Oakland University School of Health Sciences with conference leadership provided jointly by OU and MedNetOne Health Solutions, the event was launched in 2018 and returns this year with the theme, Social Determinants of Health: It Takes a Team. Last year’s Healthology event, Better Upstream Health, Better Downstream Care, launched a Michigan awareness effort to draw attention to the challenges and opportunities for improved care in the context of understanding and addressing the social determinants of health. For more information on Healthology 2019, visit https://oakland.edu/shs/healthology/.

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