What Is a Community Healthcare Worker?
Community health workers (CHWs) are frontline public health workers who have a close understanding of the community they serve. This trusting relationship enables them to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.
Community health workers also build individual and community capacity by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency through a range of activities such as outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy. (American Public Health Association, 2008)
In January 2009, the Office of Management and Budget officially published the 2010 Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC) listing in the Federal Register. The 2010 SOC includes a unique occupational classification for Community Health Worker (SOC 21-1094).
Community health workers are dedicated individuals who function along a continuum ranging from individual and community development to service delivery and promoting community empowerment and social justice. They often help link people to needed health care information and services.
Community health workers work in all geographic settings, including rural, urban and metropolitan areas; border regions (colonias); and the Native American nations. Although their roles vary depending on locale and cultural setting, they are most often found working in underprivileged marginalized communities where people may have limited resources; lack access to quality health care; lack the means to pay for health care; speak English fluently; or have cultural beliefs, values and behaviors different from those of the dominant Western health care system. In these communities, community health workers play an integral role in helping systems become more culturally appropriate and relevant to the people the systems serve.
Community health workers typically have deep roots or shared life experiences in the communities they serve. They share similar values, ethnic background and socio-economic status and usually the same language as the people they serve. The community health worker serves as a bridge between the community and the health care, government and social service systems which they can use to improve the design of health services.
The community health worker’s responsibilities may include:
- Helping individuals, families, groups and communities develop their capacity and access to resources, including health insurance, food, housing, quality care and health information
- Facilitating communication and client empowerment in interactions with health care/social service systems
- Helping health care and social service systems become culturally relevant and responsive to their service population
- Helping people understand their health condition(s) and develop strategies to improve their health and well-being
- Helping to build understanding and social capital to support healthier behaviors and lifestyle choices
- Delivering health information using culturally appropriate terms and concepts
- Linking people to health care/social service resources
- Providing informal counseling, support and follow-up
- Advocating for local health needs
- Providing health services, such as monitoring blood pressure and providing first aid
- Making home visits to chronically ill patients, pregnant women and nursing mothers, individuals at high risk of health problems and the elderly
- Translating and interpreting for clients and health care/social service providers
Community health workers go by many titles, depending on where they work, who they work for and what they do. Common titles include health coach, community health advisor, family advocate, health educator, liaison, promoter, outreach worker, peer counselor, patient navigator, health interpreter and public health aide. In Spanish-speaking communities, community health workers are often referred to as health promoters or promotores(as) de salud.
The role of the community health worker started as a societal position, appointed by and responsible to the community’s members. Advocates and activists dedicated their time and talents to ensuring that local people received the health information, resources and health care services they needed.
The success of their efforts has caused many government agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups and health care providers to create paid positions for community health workers to help reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the persistent disparities in health care and health outcomes in underprivileged communities. The organizations benefit by gaining access to information about health care needs in these communities, which they can use to improve the design of health services.