Community Health Workers Fill a Crucial Gap in the U.S Public Health Workforce

Community health workers form the backbone of Partners In Health’s work across the globe, from those who revolutionized care for HIV/AIDS and TB patients in Haiti to those providing social support across the United States. 

Posted on Feb 19, 2022

Maria Plata, Project Manager for Partners In Health United States
Maria Plata, Project Manager for Partners In Health United States. Photo by Scott McIntyre for PIH.

Community health workers form the backbone of Partners In Health’s work across the globe. PIH helps bolster equity-centered public health systems by supporting community health workers, from those who revolutionized care for HIV/AIDS and TB patients in Haiti to those providing social support across the United States.  

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria Plata, an Immokalee, Florida native and the daughter of a Mexican farm worker, was one of six community health workers hired to connect farmworkers, laborers, and other vulnerable community members to critical resources. Because of her background, Maria could uniquely connect with the families she served and quickly became a trusted source of information. Now, as a Project Manager with Partners In Health United States, she is committed to establishing a long-term, permanent community health workforce. Here, she discusses her experience responding to COVID-19 in Immokalee and the role community health workers play in building strong health systems. 

First, can you explain who community health workers are and why they are important?  

Health promotoras, health educators, community ambassadors––they can be known by different names, but community health workers are frontline public health workers who leverage their unique understanding of local language and culture to connect communities to health care and social supports.  

Living in the communities where they work, community health workers make sure that everyone has access to food, medicine, safe housing, and financial assistance. In doing so, they help overcome barriers to health care like travel times, costs, and stigma. 

Why did you decide to become a community health worker? 

I first heard the term community health worker in May 2020, when I was transitioning out of my job as a teacher. I had been volunteering with grassroots movements at the start of the pandemic and came across an opportunity to serve our beautifully diverse community by going door-to-door to share information about COVID-19. We were also tasked with bringing much-needed mobile testing into the community. I have always felt called to serve my community and this opportunity was strongly aligned with my mission to bring more resources to Immokalee.  

What has been most impactful for you in your role? 

Like many community health workers, for me, the work is deeply personal. It is easy to relate to the challenges of families we meet when going door-to-door or connecting at mobile events. At one household visit, I met a young girl who was helping translate for her parents who spoke a Guatemalan dialect our team wasn’t fluent in. I remember being that age and doing the same for my parents because almost all the materials were in English. Over the years, there have been concerted efforts to integrate culturally relevant, translated information into patient care, but we still have so much to do to bridge this gap. Community health workers are just one way to help break through these language barriers. 

How do you think your lived experiences and familiarity with the community benefit your work? 

As a daughter of farmworkers, I saw first-hand how challenging it could be for family members and friends to receive basic health care. Many people who work in agriculture or landscaping face a variety of barriers to accessing health services such as income, little to no paid sick leave, or inconvenient clinic hours. Understanding the structural obstacles that prevent people from accessing health care help shape my conversations with community members. I am then able to bring these insights back to partners to help inform solutions. 

Why are community health workers essential for a stronger U.S. public health system? 

Our experiences have shown that a community health workforce is essential for achieving better health equity, empowering communities, and building a stronger health system. 

During the recent Omicron surge, I joined community health workers as they called to check-in on positive patients. When I asked a community member about her current needs, she recognized my voice! We had met two years earlier when my team canvassed her neighborhood during lockdown. She was still relying on the information we provided to keep her and her family safe. 

Community health workers form and sustain important relationships with their neighbors. They accompany residents through care but also through life. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the U.S. public health system, but none of it will be achieved without community health workers. 

What can the general public do to support community health workers? 

Right now, the U.S. Senate is considering bipartisan legislation that would allow the U.S. government to invest in more community health workers across the country. This bill will help a wide variety of health care organizations (community-based organizations, health departments, nonprofits, and more) get the funding they need to build and support the community health workforce in the United States.  

This would mean that community health workers could be hired in communities that need them most and that programs started during COVID-19 can continue for longer and connect even more people to health, housing, food, and social services.  

Investing in community health workers is crucial to addressing our currently inequitable, fragmented, and costly public health system. Make your voice heard. Email your senators now to urge them to cosponsor the Building a Sustainable Workforce for Healthy Communities Act.   

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