Who Are Community Health Workers and What Do They Do?

For many, especially those living in a rural or underserved community, getting the healthcare you need isn’t always easy. Limited resources, a lack of healthcare professionals, expenses of care, and language and/or cultural barriers are all contributing factors to the health disparities experienced by these communities.

se211094As a way of bridging the gap between these communities and the traditional health care system, the role of community health workers (CHWs) emerged. While it is unclear exactly when the use of CHWs began, recent research shows that in North Carolina, some CHW programs have existed for more than 50 years.

Today, with 780 CHWs currently employed in North Carolina and over 48,000 working in the United States, their work has immensely helped to facilitate improvements in access to healthcare and overall quality of life for rural and underserved communities.

What is a community health worker?

Community health workers (CHW) are known to assume a variety of roles and positions, often dependent on the communities they’re working in, but the American Public Health Association defines a CHW most simply as,

“a frontline public health worker who is a trusted member of and/or has an unusually close understanding of the community served.”

 Because community health workers often live in the communities they serve, they typically share values, ethnic backgrounds, and life experiences, making it easier for them to communicate and connect with patients.

What do community health workers do?

13400575454890Also referred to as a health coach, community health advisor, outreach worker, patient navigator, health interpreter, and lay health advocate, community health workers provide a wide-range of services. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Communication between provider and patient
  • Culturally appropriate health education
  • Outreach to medical personnel/health organizations to implement programs
  • Assistance with enrolling individuals into health insurance plans
  • Social support and informal counseling
  • Help linking patients with available community resources

It’s important to note that CHWs are not meant to replace doctors, but serve as crucial supplements. Not only do they provide valuable services to the communities they serve, but they also relay important information to doctors and healthcare systems about community needs. Despite this, many CHWS are rarely fully integrated into healthcare teams, due to a variety of factors including a lack of funding and an absence of standard training or certification for workers.

However, in recent years, increased evidence of the effectiveness of fully integrating CHWs has led many states to reexamine the issue. In North Carolina, the North Carolina Division of Public Health is currently working with multiple partners to develop strategies that support CHW services and include them in the healthcare system without compromising their connection to community members.

Overall, the importance of CHWs work is clear, and the integration of CHWs into health care teams has great potential to bring vast improvements to community health in North Carolina and beyond.