The Role of Community Health Workers in the U.S.
Community health workers serve as essential connectors between communities and health services.
Posted on Aug 29, 2023
Health promotoras, health educators, community ambassadors––though known by many different names, 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 support.
Our experiences have shown that a robust community health workforce is crucial for achieving better health equity, empowering communities, and building a stronger public health system. Across the globe, community health workers play a vital role in reducing health burdens while significantly improving the health and lives of people in their communities. In the U.S., community health workers serve as essential connectors between communities and medical services by accompanying individuals on their health care journey, advocating for their community’s health needs, and matching individuals to essential social support, all of which are integral activities to ensure the right to health for everyone.
Communities of color and people living in low-income and rural areas face countless challenges such as documentation status, access to transportation, and translation support that make not only accessing, but navigating the health system difficult. Community health workers are crucial to mitigating these barriers by supporting their own communities in identifying culturally relevant resources, navigating complex health and social service systems, and advocating for the design of more accessible health services. A robust community health workforce is vital for achieving better health equity, empowering communities, and building a stronger public health system.
Here are some ways PIH-US partners with community health workers across the country:
Four Community Health Organizers from local community-based organizations in Chicago are enhancing their capacity to address public health needs by attending PIH-US-led trainings in advocacy, organizing, public health skill-building, and resource navigation. Each organizer has identified projects within their organization that they would like to introduce–from creating wraparound services for a growing immigrant community and advocacy campaigns for Medicaid expansion, to improving staff wellness services–to mobilize their neighbors in the fight for environmental justice and health equity.
PIH-US and our partners at HealthCare Network hired and trained community health workers in Immokalee to go door-to-door to connect community members to health and social services. In doing so, they help the primarily migrant community overcome barriers to health care like travel times, costs, and stigma. Throughout 2022, 15 community health workers completed over 8,600 engagements with community members including conducting COVID-19 mobile testing, facilitating transportation to vaccine events, and serving as resource navigators. When Hurricane Ian hit parts of southeastern Florida, community health workers launched vaccination outreach events for TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) and influenza in hard-hit neighborhoods.
New Bedford, Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, PIH-US partnered with the New Bedford Health Department to train promotoras from New Bedford’s Community Economic Development Center, an advocacy organization that supports a large Central American immigrant population, to conduct surveys and outreach for the local community health needs assessment. They gathered over 800 surveys from historically excluded communities detailing their health needs, challenges, and concerns about the system. By providing the health department and local health system with a deeper understanding of community concerns, the surveys collected by this workforce will ensure future public health planning and strategies are designed to meet local needs.
PIH-US is working with the North Carolina Community Health Worker Association, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and others to develop both a formal training and certification process, as well as a community, public health, and clinical integration model which are designed to provide career development and employment opportunities for community health workers across the state. To further uplift community health worker voices, PIH-US partnered with North Carolina Community Health Worker Association to host a series of trainings on legislative advocacy to ensure that community health workers participating in a state-wide Advocacy Day felt comfortable and confident sharing their stories and championing their communities to policymakers. In April, community health worker advocates met with over 50 elected officials to elevate the impact of the community-based workforce on communities across the state and urge legislators to support plans to sustainably integrate community health workers into North Carolina’s public health infrastructure.
Now more than ever, it is critical that decision-makers recognize community health workers as an essential frontline workforce whose knowledge and skills are indispensable. PIH-US is working closely with the National Association of Community Health Workers to promote recognition and funding for this workforce nationwide. We believe that investing in community health workers is imperative to the fight for health and racial justice in America.