Community health workers (CWH) are public health workers. Their goal is to connect communities with their health care systems and state health departments. Community health worker is an umbrella term that includes a range of community health aides. They are typically citizens of the community they serve and support the health system as a volunteer or paid aide.
Community health workers go through a much shorter training period than professional workers. They are trained to support one or multiple functions of health care — sometimes from a national certification authority. However, community health workers do not include formally trained nurses, medical assistants, physician assistants, emergency medical technicians (EMT) professionals, or health professionals.
Rather, community health workers are community advocates and are often agents of social change. Because of this, it is important that community health workers understand and respond to the social and cultural norms of the communities they serve — and almost all CHWs serve their own community.
What Does a Community Health Worker Do?
Community health workers provide support to local healthcare organizations and systems through various tasks, depending on what type of community they are serving. Community health worker duties include:
- Home visits
- Sanitation of the environment
- Provision of water and nutrition
- First aid
- Treatment of simple or common illnesses
- Health education
- Maternal and child health support
- Family planning activities
- Tuberculosis (TB) or HIV/AIDS care
- Communicable disease control
- Community development activities
- Recordkeeping and collection of data
Community health workers perform these tasks in a wide range of breadth and depth, depending on the education and training of the CHW and the health needs of the community.
Why Community Health Workers Are Important
Community health workers hold a unique and important role within the healthcare community. In both urban and rural environments, community health care workers usually share life experiences, socioeconomic status, language, and ethnicity with the members of the community they serve. CHWs may serve in many positions within their community, such as:
- Community health advisors
- Health advocates
- Outreach educators
- Community health representatives
- Peer health educators
Within these roles, community health workers may offer translation services, provide culturally relevant health education, or provide informal counseling and guidance.
Ultimately, community health workers have a unique opportunity to reach community members where they live, eat, work, and more. This leads to improved access to health care services, increased health screenings, stronger connections between community members and healthcare systems, improved communication between communities and health providers, reduced need for emergency services, and improved community health.
Community health workers can also function as role models by promoting, encouraging, and supporting positive and healthy self-care and self-management behaviors among community members. As advocates, they can help ensure that underserved community members get the services and follow-up care they need.
Research shows that successful community health workers can help reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health care and build strong communication with existing health care systems.
Education and Training
Currently, there is no national standard for community health worker education, training, or certification. However, most community health workers undergo on-the-job training that is specialized to their specific program.
There is a wide range of training programs. Some may cover only the skills required for a singular project, while others may be more comprehensive. Many modern training programs are offered by academic institutions and community-centered organizations.
No matter where training is offered, the goal is to meet the needs of a broad scope of CHW employers and develop the skills and knowledge of the community health workers who train there.
Some cities and states have developed standardized training programs and curriculum, some of which work with colleges and universities.
Reasons to See a Community Health Worker
Members of the community served by community health workers may visit them to receive help with:
- Family planning
- Tuberculosis (TB) care
- Malaria control
- Procuring food and water
- Community rehabilitation
- Diarrhea treatment related to unclean water
- Environmental sanitation
- Treatment of skin diseases
- Treatment of sick children
In addition, community health workers can provide basic first aid and important health screening tests. Beyond this, community health workers provide counseling and social support to members of their community.