Sutter Medical Center Pediatric Navigator Emily Barajas-Ramirez, left, discusses a pediatrician appointment she was able to set up for the newborn girl of Brigida Ramos Rivera and Miguel Garcia. The program at Sutter’s Sacramento hospital builds healthier communities by connecting families with the care they need.
By Lara Azar, Vitals contributor
Early one recent morning, Natalie Gomez quietly entered a hospital room at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento. Outside, the sun was shining brightly around the midtown hospital, but inside the room of patient Rosemary Guzman, it was purposely dim. What light there was in the room was purple-hued and cast by a bili light, a therapy tool to treat newborn jaundice. Laying under the light was Rosemary’s infant daughter, just over a day old. Her jaundice was improving nicely, and the family was preparing to head home the next day.
That’s what brought Gomez to their door that morning in her role as a pediatric navigator, one of two working at the medical center as part of the Sacramento Covered (now Community HealthWorks) pediatric navigation program, a Sutter Health community benefit investment. Her job? To help make sure the family had everything they needed to feel confident and cared for even after they left the comforts of the hospital.
Gomez asked if the family had selected a pediatrician. No? She could help with that. Did they have a preference on the physician’s gender and language? Did they need help scheduling their first follow-up appointment? What about connecting with Medi-Cal, CalFresh or any other support programs they might find useful? For Guzman, a 21-year-old first-time mom, the conversation resulted in a big sigh of relief.
“Since you’re a first-time mom, they want you to find the help you need,” she said of the pediatric navigators at SMCS. “It’s a huge weight off you!”
Reflecting afterward, Gomez couldn’t help but agree: “It’s pretty amazing to see the impact we can have on the families.”
And impact is right. Community HealthWorks, the local nonprofit that employs the pediatric navigators with Sutter’s support, conducted a three-year review of the data from 2019-22. It found more than 6,300 mothers and newborns received support, which took the form of more than 24,000 individual services to help them get care and resources. About 94% of the families were connected to their first newborn appointment before leaving the hospital, with more than 2,100 newborns added to Medi-Cal for continuity of care.
From the report: “With fluency in 11 languages and personal lived experiences that reflect the community, health navigators are trusted messengers, standing with patients to coordinate connections to care and resources, including during unprecedented times of crisis.”
It’s not hard to imagine that all of this supports the mental health needs of mothers, who report reduced stress and increased confidence. Community HealthWorks’ Jessica Lopez, who manages the navigator program, is one of those “trusted messengers” — meaning, she remembers well how the sleepless days of early motherhood could seem overwhelming. She said nurses would do their best to help make sure families had care and support after leaving the hospital, but it was a lot to ask.
“They’re always very grateful that they don’t have to worry about that on top of providing care — we’re a resource to them,” Lopez said. More than that, Gomez added, they try to be a resource to the community because, overall, it’s about overcoming obstacles to accessing healthcare.
And that’s where Sutter Health comes in. As a not-for-profit network of care — one that sees more than 3 million patients a year — the health system invests in what’s known as “community benefit.” In recent years in the Sacramento area alone, that has ranged from investments in access to care for the LGBTQ+ community to supporting housing and services for those experiencing homelessness to helping open a school-based mental health center.
Kelly Brenk, director of external affairs for the Sutter Health Valley Area, puts it like this: “Our work goes beyond traditional healthcare. Working alongside trusted community partners enables Sutter Health to wrap new moms and their babies with resources to improve healthcare access and reduce potential barriers to care. This is just one way we bring care to where people are and an innovative example to expand access to care both inside and outside the walls of the hospital.”