What Does a Community Health Worker Do and How Do I Become One?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Discover the role of a community health worker and what it takes to become one, including types of community support, duties and responsibilities, skills, education and experience needed, and salary.

[Featured Image]: A community health worker, wearing a green jacket, white top, and a face covering. She is handling prescriptions.

A community health worker is a crucial link between health and social services with the community, facilitating access to services, and improving the health and well-being of those in the community they serve. Many roles come under the umbrella of community health workers, with various requirements to obtain a position. 

What does a community health worker do?

Community health workers (CHWs) may support the community in many ways through outreach, maternity support, first aid, education, advocacy, and informal counseling. They are frontline public health workers and build effective relationships with the community to bring essential services to the people, rather than being based in a formal facility. 

Where do community health workers work?

Community health workers are based in the community they serve, so their employers vary, depending on the needs of the area and the demographic they support. They may work for government-run programs, not-for-profit organizations, or health care agencies. 

Given that they need to be accessible by the communities they support, CHWs often move around, visiting homes, distributing information, running group programs, and being present in community locations where people know they can meet with them. 

Examples of community health worker roles

Community health worker is an umbrella term, and within that, several roles are available. Examples include:

Community health advocate

A community health advocate works closely with patients undergoing any health care treatment to help them understand the process, health care plans, and use of medication and to assist with anything the patient needs concerning insurance and financial support. 

Family advocate

A family advocate works with families to support children’s best interests during parental disputes or cases where children could be at risk. They serve as a liaison between family, community care, and other professionals. It is the role of the family advocate to assess the child’s home life and make recommendations in court about the care and guardianship of the child.

Outreach worker

An outreach worker helps people in the community by liaising between them and any external agencies, groups, or services that they might be able to utilize. Each will have an area of specialism, whether that’s children and young people, the elderly community, or health care. 

Community liaison worker

A community liaison worker interacts with community members on behalf of official organizations like schools or the police if it will benefit the community member or if there has been an incident.

What are the primary duties and responsibilities of a community health worker?

A community health worker is mainly responsible for advocating for people in the community, and their role will vary depending on the position. Someone working as an advocate for children will have very different specific responsibilities to someone working as a community health advisor. However, some responsibilities will span CHWs roles in general:

  • Facilitating communication between community members and health and care organizations

  • Building a trusting relationship with the community in which they represent

  • Helping people understand their health or social conditions  

  • Providing advocacy for those who need it

  • Making home visits to high-risk patients, pregnant or nursing mothers, and the elderly

  • Holding groups and individual meetings with people in the community 

  • Delivering health care information in a way that is easy to understand

  • Providing informal counseling

  • Determining eligibility for health care plans

  • Collecting data to inform future programs 

What skills do you need to become a community health worker?

It is important to possess the following skills and qualities to work as any kind of community health worker:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills

  • Empathy

  • Patience

  • Relationship building skills

  • Time management

  • Knowledge of the community and its needs

In addition to these skills and qualities, given that the work community health workers do is so people orientated and requires so much patience and empathy, this type of work is best suited to people who excel in social situations with a drive to help others. Excellent community health workers are curious without being intrusive and allow people to open up and feel valued. They are also ideally members of the same community as those they serve and speak the same language.

Read more: What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

What prior experience is required to become a community health worker?

For many roles, the experience asked for will relate to the people and services the position will apply to. For example, anyone working in children’s services will need to have experience working with children. Similarly, those working with individuals with substance abuse issues, experience in this area would be helpful. 

In general, having worked in a public-facing role or supporting individuals will be beneficial. This can consist of  paid experience, or anything that you have undertaken voluntarily, such as caring for a relative, shopping for an elderly neighbor, or mentoring someone in the community or at school. 

What do you need to study to work as a community health worker?

Training and education requirements vary considerably across states and depending on the role. Some positions will ask for an associate or bachelor's degree, while others will accept a high school diploma and on-the-job training. 

How much do community health workers get paid?

According to Glassdoor, the average salary of community health workers is $38,206 as of May 2022 [1] and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 17 percent increase in community health worker jobs between 2020-2030. This is above the average of an 8 percent increase for all occupations. [2]. Salaries for community health workers will depend on many factors, including location, who they work for, and the type of role.  However, many people also work in the position in a voluntary capacity.

Who are typical employers of community health workers?

Employers of CHWs are primarily in the public health sector. They can include family services, local government, outpatient care centers, medical centers, community food and housing organizations, relief services, education services, and advocacy services.

Is there good career progression for a community health worker?

As the roles that come under the umbrella of community health workers are so vast, you typically have plenty of opportunities for movement and side steps within the profession. It also gives a good grounding for moving on to more senior positions in public health, including community health care managers. 

Next steps

If you are considering volunteering as a community health worker, you can learn what it entails through the Training and Learning Programs for Volunteer Community Health Workers offered by John Hopkins University on Coursera. This is also a great place to start if you are looking for paid work in this field, as it can help you form a solid understanding of the necessary principles and practices. You could also consider the University of Michigan’s course on Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health as part of your continued professional development. 

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Article sources

1. Glassdoor. “Community health worker salary information,  https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-community-health-worker-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,26.htm.” Accessed April 7, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Health Education Specialist and Community Health Workers,  https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211094.htm.” Accessed April 7, 2022

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