Good health starts at home. The Community Health Aide Program was developed to meet the healthcare needs of rural Alaska in the 1950s and 1960s. The TB epidemic was sweeping through Alaska at the time which provided the opportunity to utilize village workers in the Norton Sound region to distribute antibiotics. This successful demonstration of the use of local people as health care providers led to the concept of the Community Health Aide Program (CHAP), which was established with funding from IHS in 1968.
The Community Health Aide Program is a sustainable, successful, and culturally acceptable health care delivery system in Alaska Native villages. With focused training and support, community health professionals deliver quality care in rural environments and minimizing the need for travel to Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome. Community Health Aides/Practitioners are local people who are trained to become often the only healthcare provider in their community. Not only are they seeing patients during normal clinic hours, but must also provide on-call service after hours for urgent and emergent patient care. They receive training at one of a few training centers in Alaska to work within the guidelines of the Alaska Community Health Aide/Practitioner Manual (CHAM). The CHAM outlines assessment and treatment protocols and they work closely with providers in Norton Sound to provide these services. Communication with providers happens with what we still call Radio Medical Traffic (or RMT) from back when VHF radios were the only way to communicate from the village to Nome (or often from village to village to Nome).
Norton Sound Health Corporation services 15 villages in the region, in which Village Health Services manages clinic operations. The majority of staff in the department are community health aide practitioners. These front-line primary health care providers are a critical link between doctors in Nome and patients in villages. Seven villages of our region have a full-time physician assistant or nurse practitioner in the communities of Brevig Mission, Savoonga, Gambell, Shishmaref, Elim, Saint Michael, and Unalakleet. Unalakleet is currently one of our functional Sub-Regional Clinics that is staffed with a Community Health Aides and provides additional services from a physician, physician assistant, audiologist, radiology technician, Registered Nurses, Behavioral Clinician, and a dental health aide practitioner. Shishmaref and Savoonga clinics also have dental health aide practitioners stationed in their communities. Additionally, we have our providers who travel to the clinics to provide additional care in all 15 villages throughout the year including dental, eye care, assigned physicians, audiology, and Public Health Nurses.
Being a Community Health Aide/Practitioner is a demanding position with the health care of the community being their responsibility 24 hours a day. It’s important that they are supported by everyone, including their family, their community members, village leadership, and corporate leadership.