Health guides help patients navigate health care system

Sanford Health expands service to people at risk for health complications

A Sanford Health doctor meets with two women, in an exam room: a patient and her health guide.

There was a day in the not-too-distant past when neither Vanessa Heinrichs nor Boni White knew anything about what a Sanford health guide does or why someone might need one.

That has all changed for the better for both of them.

Heinrichs, a former athletic trainer with a commitment to helping people, discovered becoming a health guide suited her personality and skillset very well.

White, meanwhile, discovered people like Heinrichs could help change her life.

Find primary care: Search providers near you at Sanford Health

So what exactly is a health guide? It’s a question Heinrichs gets a lot, even from some people who otherwise know their way around a health care system.

“Our job as health guides is to identify any gaps in care preventing patients from achieving their health goals,” Heinrichs said. “We help patients bridge those gaps as best we can by addressing the different barriers patients are facing that are keeping them from accessing the resources they need to be successful.”

Ultimately, White needed a reboot in her healing strategy. Heinrichs was there to help make that happen, offering support on several fronts.

“When I would get really discouraged, Vanessa would be an encourager,” White said. “She would tell me, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to find the answer.’”

Health guide as ‘trustworthy insider’

Sanford Health introduced the role of health guide in 2017 with two social workers who focused on helping high-risk patients. It has since evolved into a program that includes 12 full-time employees within the Sanford system who focus on patients identified as “rising risk.” That is, patients who are not “high risk” yet but may be headed in that direction.

“We work proactively with rising risk patients to help prevent their chronic conditions from getting worse, in hopes that they do not progress to that high risk level,” Heinrichs said.

“As health guides we are trustworthy insiders who serve as liaisons between the community, the health system and the patient. We’re here to support and guide our patients in navigating their way through a complex health care system and the various community resources that are available. We want to empower our patients to take more ownership of their health by being an active participant in their care and encourage them to be an advocate for themselves.”

Heinrichs served White in all those roles and perhaps a few more while escorting her through a journey that began with a phone call.

Pain management became a priority

White, who recently retired after working for Lewis Drug for 46 years, has arthritis and has also dealt with kidney disease. The arthritis was making life more and more uncomfortable and the kidney disease ruled out conventional pain killers. In addition, those 46 years of walking for work had taken a toll on her legs.

Muscle and nerve spasms restricted her to 10 steps at a time, she said. Even when using a walker she couldn’t move around much. Family visits were often cut short and she had to give up driving a car. A pain she could not control was controlling her life.

“I couldn’t do much around the house,” she said. “I couldn’t cook — something I really enjoy — because it involves standing at the counter. And I tell you, I’ve never seen so much stupid TV in my life. I read every book I had — and then I had all those hours in front of the TV. I knew when I started watching movies about aliens that I’d reached the limit of what there was to watch.”

Conversations with Heinrichs led to a workshop in dealing with pain management as well as physical therapy sessions. Eventually, White also decided it was time to try a new provider. It was time for a new set of eyes and ears to take on this problem.

A guide to a new provider

Heinrichs accompanied White to her first visit with Brooke Jensen, M.D., a family practice specialist who steered her in the right direction. She was connected with a neurosurgeon and in February she had back surgery.

The pain went from 10 down to zero, she said. White is now back on her feet for more than 10 steps at a time.

“Literally the day after surgery I had none of the nerve pain I had before,” White said. “It was such a release for me. I still deal with arthritis but it’s nothing compared to what I was dealing with. Vanessa was with me through the whole thing. I can get my own groceries. I can do my own cooking. I have projects for church again that I enjoy doing. Before there was no joy — it was all about the pain.”

Heinrichs maintained her rapport with White after surgery with regular conversations that went well beyond clinical curiosity. She answered White’s questions — and prayers, in this case.

“Vanessa would call me before a doctor appointment then she’d call again after an appointment,” White said. “Step by step, she was there checking up on me and making sure things were fine.  ‘Are you getting together with people?’ she’d ask. ‘Are you calling people? Are you seeing people? Are you doing OK financially?’ It wasn’t just about my physical health.”

Clearing barriers to care

Health guides will typically seek out Sanford patients whose recoveries have hit a wall. Most often it is a communication issue. Patients may be frustrated by their lack of progress or confused about what to do next.

“We have wonderful providers at Sanford,” Heinrichs said. “In some cases, we notice that communication with the care team can be a barrier for patients. As health guides we’re able to help facilitate that communication.  We take the patients concern and voice it on a different level to their care team in a way that promotes healthy communication and addresses the patients’ needs.”

For White and many like her, health guides are a reassuring and knowledgeable means of navigating complex circumstances. By getting to know Heinrichs, White was able to find possible solutions to problems that weren’t so easy to see on her own.

“Vanessa never told me what to do. She’d just give me suggestions,” White said. “The decision would always be up to me. And being a control freak like I am, that’s what I needed. I so appreciated what she’s done for me. It’s a great program.”

Learn more

Posted In Allied Health, Brain & Spine, Family Medicine, Rehabilitation & Therapy, Sioux Falls