YWCA’s Health Care Navigator Seeks to Improve Health Equity


Access to health care can be particularly daunting for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. New clients of the YWCA Richmond include pregnant women receiving no prenatal care. Others live in fear of losing custody of their children because of health issues. Too many have not seen – or been allowed to see – a doctor in years.

When these survivors do seek medical services, they can feel overwhelmed by paperwork and demands for medical records that were lost in the escape from violent circumstances.

“There is a perception that the systems in place are helping, but those systems contain more barriers for disadvantaged folks than that community realizes.  This is due in large part to a survivor’s socioeconomic status. Therefore the systems created to provide care are actually contributing to the problem by being flawed in design,” said Lisette Johnson, the YWCA Health Care Navigator.

Johnson joined the YWCA in January, and she is already a trusted friend and resource for the agency’s staff and clients. She helps to connect survivors to primary care physicians, dentists and specialists, and she educates both clients and providers about the long-term impacts of trauma.

At times, Johnson accompanies survivors to medical appointments, but her ultimate goal is to give them the knowledge and resources to navigate the health care system on their own.

“We know we can’t fix everything. We teach them how to take control,” said Chief Program Officer Becky Lee. “It’s empowering to them when we’re saying that.”

The YWCA used a grant from Richmond Memorial Health Foundation to add the Health Care Navigator position to its staff. Johnson was already a prominent advocate for domestic violence prevention, both professionally and as a volunteer. That background, along with an innate persistence and problem-solving ability, enabled her to quickly begin building a network of providers and resources for survivors.

“With Lisette here, we’re helping individuals, but also creating a new path,” said Alyssa Murray, Director of Grants and Data Management. “The system is designed to be difficult to navigate access to care, and we’re creating a new path to access those services.”

The Health Care Navigator builds on the YWCA’s mission to empower women, children and their families to live their best lives – a mission steeped in a commitment to gender and racial equity. YWCA leaders are proud of the progress they are making, but aware that there is a great deal of work to do to reach their goal.

“The more we talk about equity, and the more we talk about creating an equitable society, the more threatened inequitable structures are and the more pushback we get,” said Lee. “There is a very clear energy in favor of equity, and there are people who understand it intellectually, but the implementation of equity is where we get hung up. The implementation changes everything.”

Reprinted with permission by Richmond Memorial Health Foundation

Written by Christina Nuckols