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Partner Perspectives: Partnership with School of Social Work reduces emergency room costs for the community

Community Health Care Clinic staff members

Staff members of the Community Health Care Clinic

Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.

By Mike Romagnoli, executive director, Community Health Care Clinic

Mike Romagnoli

Mike Romagnoli

The Community Health Care Clinic is celebrating 25 years of patient care in 2019 and has partnered with Illinois State University for the entirety of the clinic’s existence. We’ve had a very diverse partnership, coming from many departments across, from Foreign Language to Illinois State University Health Services. Our current connection through the School of Social Work is one that is proving to be invaluable.

The clinic provides free primary health care, on-site medications, and specialty referrals to approximately 1,200 of McLean County’s low-income, uninsured residents. The socioeconomic status of clinic patients means that they are often in need of more than just medical care, and our social work interns from Illinois State University are able to help these patients navigate the complex system of social services available outside of the medical care provided by the Clinic.

One program in particular I would like to highlight is the Coordinating Appropriate Access to Comprehensive Healthcare (C.A.A.T.C.H.) program. This program is a formal partnership with both local hospitals and identifies low-income McLean County residents without a primary care provider and connects them with healthcare services, medication access, and long-term primary care connection. Patients are referred to the Clinic after being seen in the emergency department or being hospitalized.

The C.A.A.T.C.H. program started in July 2017. For years, clinic leadership had been trying to “catch” patients in the emergency rooms for non-emergent issues and introduce them to the role of primary care. In the spring of 2017, we approached both hospitals with the concept of the C.A.A.T.C.H. program, but were going to need their assistance. Some processes at the hospitals were going to have to change in order to route those referrals to the clinic, and ultimately to route them to our social work intern who was going to be the primary point of contact for the hospital care managers as well as the patients.

Intern sitting at desk

Katelyn Hill, an Illinois State graduate student in the School of Social Work, is the intern currently in charge of the C.A.A.T.C.H. program.

Very early on in the program, it was evident that the program’s concept was a success. As of this writing, there are have been 401 C.A.A.T.C.H. referrals between our two hospitals, and referrals continue to come in daily. The program has been incredibly successful in doing what it is designed to do. In the first quarter of 2019, patients referred through C.A.A.T.C.H. accounted for 235 emergency department visits. After being contacted by our social work interns, that number reduced to 28 emergency room visits for that same group of patients. That is nearly a 90 percent reduction in emergency room usage, equating to $931,500 in cost savings to our community, and all of this done by bachelor’s and/or master’s level social work interns.

Our social work interns are provided a uniquely hands-on experience at the clinic. The C.A.A.T.C.H. program has become an extremely important part of the services that we offer, and it is designed in such a way that each successive intern can pick it up right where the previous intern left. Our interns get a tremendous amount of contact with patients, and they develop relationships with patients during their time with the clinic. We feel that this hands-on experience helps prepare the students for what they will encounter once they are employed in the social work field. It is always so rewarding as a host organization to work with a student and see their growth throughout their time with us. For our social work interns working on the C.A.A.T.C.H. program, it is even more rewarding to hear a prospective patient call back and ask for the intern by name. This is when we know that that important first connection has been made.

As an organization, we are very proud of the success of the C.A.A.T.C.H. program and that we are able to demonstrate an incredible cost savings for the entire community. We are also extremely appreciative of our partnership with Illinois State University Social Work. The C.A.A.T.C.H. program is very labor intensive program, and we know that without this partnership, the successes that we are able to report would not be possible.