In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Community health workers (CHWs) go out into neighborhoods, housing projects, barber shops, and other community settings to work directly with populations in need. They are usually members of the communities they serve. CHWs provide health education and can assist with access to care, but they are not licensed health care providers. Instead, their primary role is as a link between underserved communities, where people are often suspicious of government and doctors, and the health service mainstream. Through individual visits, presentations to community groups, and the distribution of written information, CHWs can provide education on many important health issues.
In some maternal and child health programs, CHWs work directly with pregnant women who are at risk of poor birth outcomes. They do outreach to locate these women and interest them in the program, help them find prenatal care services, encourage them to make and keep appointments, provide basic education on health issues, and help them find resources such as GED programs and safe childcare. CHWs are trained to be sensitive to issues such as poverty or violence that might serve as barriers to good health.
In addition to maternal and child health, CHWs are also used with other health issues and populations. This job has many different titles, including “lay health educator,” “peer educator,” and “promotor” or “promotora” (used in Spanish-speaking communities).
Education and Certification
Educational expectations vary from a GED to a college degree. CHWs are often trained by their employers for the specific services they will provide. There are also training opportunities at community colleges, local nonprofits, and other health-oriented settings. Some states have specific training and certification requirements.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Patience and a sense of humor
- Outgoing, friendly nature
- Excellent communication skills, including good listening skills
- Ability to help people solve problems, without doing it for them
- Interest in helping build community strength
- Basic understanding of health and health care issues
- Personal understanding of the culture of the community being served
- Ability to be comfortable among different types of people
- Fluency in a language other than English, if needed to communicate with clients
A national study of the CHW workforce, completed in 2007, found that about two-thirds of newly hired CHWs earned between minimum wage and $13 per hour (about $25,000 per year for a full-time job). Experienced workers earned more, with many making $15 per hour or above. A 2009 summary from the Community Health Worker Special Primary Interest group at APHA estimates somewhat higher salaries, starting around $35,000 to $42,000, with a rise to $52,000 with experience.
CHWs are employed by local governments, nonprofit organizations, health care facilities, a few public schools, and community health programs based at academic institutions.
The idea of using community members to promote health and improve access to care seems to be gaining momentum, so it is likely that job opportunities will increase.
For Further Information
- The American Association of Community Health Workers is a new organization that, as of this writing, does not yet have a Web site.
- American Public Health Association—CHW Section www.apha.org/membergroups/sections/aphassections/chw
- Center for Sustainable Health Outreach www.usm.edu/csho