Advancing health equity
Markey’s community health workers play a critical role in cancer screening and prevention.
The Markey Cancer Center is working to meet the needs of communities of color through inclusive outreach and engagement. Two new community health workers (CHWs) are building relationships and making a positive difference by working with community partners to get the word out about cancer screenings and risk reductions.
A history of connections
CHWs are trusted members of the community whose unique strength lies in sharing similar backgrounds and experiences with those they serve. Their connection with the community helps them provide culturally congruent programming and overcome medical mistrust and language divides that prevent people from accessing health care.
For years, CHWs have served as liaisons between health institutions and the community around the country. Since 1994, the Kentucky Homeplace (a part of the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health) has been the Commonwealth’s model to reach medically underserved counties in Appalachia.
The new CHW positions form part of Markey’s community outreach and engagement team under the Kentucky Cancer Program (KCP), a statewide cancer control program led by Markey and the University of Louisville/Brown Cancer Center. The CHWs work with regional cancer control specialists to provide strategic outreach to the Black/ African American and Hispanic communities. They build on the strengths and programs of community partners, such as churches and other organizations, said Dr. Lovoria Williams, associate director of health equity, diversity and inclusion at Markey. “We can work through these settings to meet people where they are to provide education about the resources available at Kentucky’s only NCI-Designated Cancer Center,” she said. “Markey strives to become a resource for all populations. We want people to think about Markey as a resource for education and screening, as well as excellent cancer care.”
Khadijah Wallace says her passion for helping others and making her community healthier led to her CHW position. The potential impact of her role became clear to Wallace on Dress in Blue Day, an annual event that brings awareness to and honors those affected by colon cancer. Wallace spoke to congregations and pastors in the Lexington area to encourage participation in the event, where people learned more about screenings. “Many had never heard of that event, and they really enjoyed the chance to be a part of a positive health initiative,” she said.
Many people still don’t want to talk about cancer and view it as the “C” word, Wallace noted. The event sparked conversations about colon cancer. People felt comfortable enough to share their own experiences. At one church, a man talked about his colon cancer diagnosis and treatment with his fellow churchgoers for the first time. “He’d never talked about it before, but he said that Markey took very good care of him,” Wallace said. “He described everything, and he said Markey had a plan of action for him. I’m so glad that he was able to tell that positive story.”
Gabby Rodriguez works with the Hispanic population. Part of her role includes creating Spanish translations of health information resources and interacting with community members in both Spanish and English at community events. “As a Hispanic woman, I understand the struggles many Hispanic families face in regard to access to health care,” she said.
“I’m just happy to have the chance to make an impact in the lives of these communities and let them know that resources are available for those who don’t have the access to the health care that they deserve.”
Rodriguez discovered during one of her first days on the job that building trust is key and it’s an ongoing process. She was visiting a store in an area of Lexington with a large Hispanic population to deliver flyers promoting free mammograms and Pap smears. “They told me about their experiences with individuals who come to them to help and never show up again,” she says. “That opened my eyes to how difficult it must be for these communities to open up and to trust individuals.”
Rodriguez wants people to know she’s there for them and willing to help. “I’m just happy to have the chance to make an impact in the lives of these communities and let them know that resources are available for those who don’t have the access to the health care that they deserve,” she said.