At a recent graduation symposium, our 2015-2016 AmeriCorps cohort presented posters on their work with some of the sickest and most vulnerable patients in Camden. Our AmeriCorps volunteers serve as health coaches on Camden Coalition care teams and at primary care practices of our Accountable Care Organization (ACO) members, getting an up-close look at the challenges our patients face. Over nine to twelve months, they work one-on-one with patients to navigate barriers to health care, experiencing the failures of the health system as well as the difference that patient-centered care makes.

“On a much larger scale, our patients experience the same things everyone experiences,” said Rashida Charles, an AmeriCorps health coach at Cooper Hospital’s Urban Health Institute (UHI). “Their experiences are just so magnified due to their circumstances. I learned how lucky I am.”

“A lot of times I realized that we subconsciously put the blame on the patient until we realize how complicated the system is. Even providers don’t always have the solution,” said Poornima Venigalla, who worked on our Clinical Redesign team.

Justin Mott, AmeriCorps health coach with our Care Management Initiatives team, worked to implement an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) survey with our patients in order to provide better trauma-informed care. He was surprised at how much patients were willing to talk about their trauma. “Questions that were designed to be yes or no turned out to be stories,” he said.

Ricca Prasad, who also worked at UHI, was able to help start an entire program from scratch. UHI’s new addiction medicine program includes the county’s second Suboxone program. Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, is a powerful tool for patients recovering from opioid dependence, but it can be extremely difficult to access, especially for the low-income population that our ACO serves. “Patients were ecstatic to get the call that they could finally get treatment,” Ricca said. “Now we have a panel of over 50 patients.”

Most of this year’s AmeriCorps cohort said that while they knew patients would be facing complex barriers, actually working with the patients was a humbling experience. “Even though you might have a plan, you can’t make a patient do it,” said Ashli McLean, who worked on our Clinical Redesign team. “You have to take the time to listen to what they want.”

“People’s lives aren’t neat or fixable,” added Demi Padilla, who worked on our Care Management Initiatives team. “We’re dealing with real people, and success means different things for different people.”

Many AmeriCorps members plan to continue working in the health care field, either as clinical providers or by working in an organization like the Camden Coalition. Christelle Tan, who plans to go to medical school, said that it was eye-opening to see how patients were treated by providers. “Patients face barriers not only in the community, but within the physician’s office as well,” she said. Poornima also plans to go to medical school. “The fact that the patients I’ve worked with are all so resilient, that really inspired me to want to do primary care.”

The Camden Coalition’s AmeriCorps program is supported by the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey.

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