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What Is a Community Health Worker? Understanding Their Impact on Community Health

A Community Health Story August 2, 2023

While they might not wear a super-hero outfit, community health workers play a vital role in their communities. They are friends and neighbors. They could also be grocery store workers or mechanics. What do they have in common? They share a strong commitment to improving the health and well-being of everyone in their community.

What Is the Role of a Community Health Worker?

Community health workers (CHWs) are people who connect community members with the healthcare system and local resources to help meet their healthcare and health-related social needs.

Community health worker efforts often lead to measurably better health outcomes. 

CHWs focus on the physical and mental health of individual people in their community, differentiating them from public health workers who typically focus on a scientific approach to eliminating, controlling, and preventing disease among large populations. They don’t assist with daily activities of living, like a health aide does, but rather are a conduit to help people get assistance they may need. CHWs might implement programs or individual health plans created by certified health education specialists to improve an individual’s health outcomes.

They also bring a measure of cultural humility to healthcare because they often speak the same languages, share race and ethnic characteristics, and have similar life experiences with those in their community. As members of the communities they serve, CHWs are more readily accepted by their neighbors and available to people where they live, work, and play.

What Relationships Should a Community Health Worker Develop to be Effective?

Reaching out to people in the community allows CHWs to understand what services people in their area need to improve the quality of their lives.

Going to where community members are is important for CHWs to be successful. They will go to employment locations, like farms or hotels, to help employees there learn about available healthcare and social supports. They may visit with community members at apartment complexes, shelters, and other community locations.

CHWs can be an extension of care teams, giving additional support to people with chronic conditions or people who need help receiving care and following treatment plans. When people need healthcare services, CHWs often serve as health navigators, supporting them as they move through the healthcare system, sometimes even accompanying them to appointments. Since 45% of CHWs are bilingual, they can serve as interpreters to not only translate language but also ensure care approaches use cultural humility.

Educating people about how to access available services is an important function of CHWs. Since they are typically highly trusted, CHWs establish relationships and can make inroads in reassuring people that they can ask for and receive appropriate healthcare services and social supports.

CHWs also serve as advocates for their communities. They raise awareness to community and healthcare leaders about specific social drivers of health that can lead to poor health outcomes. CHWs also can track health outcomes to see if additional visits or social supports are needed.

What Organizations Use Community Health Workers?

CHWs can be volunteers or employees. As a result, calculating the total number of CHWs across the country is difficult. As of May 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are 61,300 paid CHWs in the United States, employed by:

  • Local government agencies
  • Family and individual services agencies
  • Ambulatory and outpatient healthcare centers
  • Hospitals
  • Insurers
  • Community-based organizations
  • Emergency and other relief organizations
  • Social advocacy organizations as well as grantmaking

Volunteer CHWs may work with any of the above employers as well as social, religious, and civic organizations that provide support to the community.

Community members may be referred to CHWs by social, religious, and civic organizations.

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Elevance Health-affiliated health plans provide 37 brick-and-mortar community service centers to provide critical access to healthcare and social supports. In 11 states and the District of Columbia, these inviting neighborhood spaces are staffed by trained associates who use cultural humility in assisting visitors. They provide information on housing, employment, legal aid, and other resources. Many locations provide free food and diapers. Elevance Health CHWs working for Elevance Health-affiliated plans also operate from inside the organization by reaching out by phone to members across the country to help connect them to care and services in their communities.

What Are the Benefits of Community Health Workers?

Community health worker efforts often lead to measurably better health outcomes. For example, the Community Asthma Initiative at Boston Children’s Hospital demonstrated how CHWs helped improve outcomes among children with asthma. CHWs evaluated home environments to identify and address potential asthma triggers. Asthma-related emergency room visits dropped by 55%, while asthma-related inpatient admissions fell by over 80%.

While CHWs have been shown to improve outcomes when working with people who have specific chronic conditions, less is known about the impact of CHW programs on general healthcare use and spending. A study by an Elevance Health-related Medicaid plan showed interventions by CHWs led to 18% more outpatient visits and 21% more primary care visits. When people seek that kind of ongoing care, they can take advantage of preventive care measures to stay healthy or detect illnesses at their earliest stages.

Some benefits of CHWs are harder to quantify. They increase people’s understanding of the importance of preventive and consistent healthcare along with how to access healthcare and social support resources. They show community members that people are available to help them improve their health and well-being. Perhaps most importantly, CHWs show people how much they care about them and their families.

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