In January, the 55-bed rural hospital in western Maryland will begin training five people to become chronic disease management peer navigators, because who is more qualified to lead patients through care than former patients?

“What better way to enter into the health care system than to have lived through it,” says Mark Boucot, president and CEO, Garrett Regional Medical Center. “That example is going to be so much more powerful to the community and the patients we serve.”

The proposal, which was approved by Maryland regulators, is part of Garrett Regional’s Population Health Workforce Support for Disadvantaged Areas Program, an arm of its larger Well Patient Program. Garrett will accept people with longstanding chronic disease conditions, who commonly have other social needs, such as economic uncertainty, into the Well Patient Program.

They will be required to complete an 80-hour community health worker educational program where they’ll learn how to navigate the system and use resources to help patients with chronic pain. The curriculum is being developed in partnership with local Garrett College in McHenry, Md.  

The approach is taken from evidence-based substance abuse programs that have proven successful by using former substance abusers to council those struggling with addiction.

“The idea is that, from the beginning, we’re trying to create a mindset in patients that they are on a journey toward wellness, and they can and will be able to manage their chronic conditions better to keep themselves out of the hospital,” says Boucot.

Those who graduate from the Well Patient Program will then be placed in the patient care management department at Garrett, gaining experience in care coordination, navigational skills and knowledge on how to collaborate with the primary care system. There, they will guide new patients who enter the Well Patient Program.

Kendra Thayer, Garrett’s vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, says they’re expecting to train more workers in the upcoming years. She envisions some trying to advance their education to become social workers and nursing assistants.  

Garrett may have the state’s lowest readmission rate, says Boucot, but it is always working to improve.

“I think it’s our role to take responsibility for the total cost of care. It’s important for us to take responsibility for the community’s health and be more proactive in managing patients' health,” he says.