A community health worker provides education, support, and basic health care services to a community by working directly among members of the population. They can provide first line medical care to people who might not otherwise access health care services. Many nations have community health worker programs that provide training to people who want to provide these services, including education in first aid, how to assist in surgical procedures, and related topics. The scope of the work can vary, depending on the region.
In isolated rural communities, particularly in the developing world, access to health care can be limited. People may not be able to afford travel to a clinic, medical personnel may not live nearby, and some may not trust doctors and nurses. A community health worker acts as a bridge. These health care personnel are members of the communities they work in, and thus occupy a position of trusted authority. Patients may approach them for help and they can provide basic care or offer assistance if the patient needs to connect with medical care in another area.
The use of community health workers to provide care is not limited to the developing world. In developed nations, low income populations, immigrants, and various minority groups may not interact directly with the health care system. Community-based healthcare services can include education, assistance, and referrals to agencies and health care providers that people may benefit from. For example, a community with a high infant mortality rate among low income women might ask a community health worker to manage an outreach program. This person could provide education, meet with parents at home, refer parents to social services for help, and locate women who need assistance with their children.
On any given day, a community health worker is often out in the field. The work can require travel to remote areas to locate people who need assistance. Many need to be bilingual to reach as many people in the community as possible. They can visit people at home as well as offering classes, visiting schools and workplaces to locate potential clients, and assisting at medical clinics. Members of a community may feel more comfortable visiting a doctor or nurse with a community health worker they know and trust, and some of the work can involve assisting at procedures, translating, and advocating for patients.
Training to become a community health worker can vary depending on the region and the specific type of work involved. Some are qualified as medical personnel, social workers, or public health workers. Others are laypeople who do not have formal training, other than a workshop provided by a government agency to make them aware of some basic health topics. Strong community connections are key for this type of work, and agencies often recruit from within a community to fill open positions.