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, responsibilities, skills, and education needed.

[Featured Image] A community health worker in a green jacket, white top, and a face covering loads prescription medication into a van.

Community health workers are a crucial and supportive link between health and social services and the communities they serve. From facilitating health care access to improving the well-being of community members, community health workers provide a service that positively impacts the lives of the nation's vulnerable groups. Many job titles fall under the umbrella of community health workers and each position's responsibilities can vary. In this article, you'll learn more about what community health workers do, their salary and job outlook, the roles that define the field, and steps you can take for this career path.

What does a community health worker do?

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

Salary and job outlook

Community health workers can expect to earn a median annual salary of $46,590 as of May 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. Glassdoor estimates the average annual wage for community health workers to be $38,303 [2]. The exact figure you can expect as a community health worker will likely depend on your specific role, location, and experience level.

Overall, the need for community health workers is expected to grow faster than average. The number of job openings for health education specialists and community health workers is expected to increase by 12 percent [3].

Where they work

Community health workers may work for government-run programs, non-profit organizations, health care agencies, and other community-based organizations. 

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. 

Community health worker responsibilities

A community health worker's responsibilities will vary depending on their position. A CHW working as an advocate for children will have very different responsibilities from someone working as a community health advisor, but both will be concerned with helping their respective communities with the available resources.

Here are some common responsibilities that CHWs share:

  • 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 

Job roles in community health

Community health worker is an umbrella term that encompasses many other roles. Here are some of the most common community health worker jobs:

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, 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.

How to become a community health worker

CHWs provide critical health care services to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. To handle such an important responsibility, they must receive appropriate training and experience. Here are three steps to become an effective community health worker:

1. Get educated.

Regardless of their role, community health workers must gain the training and education required to join the profession. Requirements vary considerably across states and job roles.

Typically, CHWs must have at least a high school diploma. A bachelor's degree is considered an asset, though it can certainly help you land a job. Most CHWs will receive on-the-job training. In some cases, employers might also require an associate degree or a community health worker certification through a two- or one-year program.

2. Hone the right skills.

CHWs help vulnerable communities and individuals achieve important public health care goals. You'll want to build the following skills to provide effective and empathetic care:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills

  • Empathy

  • Patience

  • Relationship building skills

  • Time management

  • Knowledge of the community and its needs

Community health workers tend to be helpful and curious without being intrusive. They use empathy so that people feel comfortable speaking honestly about their issues and feel valued. Ideally, they belong to the same community as those they serve and can speak the same language.

Read more: What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

3. Gain relevant work experience.

The more experience you have working in a specific community, the better qualified you'll be for a community health worker role. 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 would benefit from previous experience working with addicts or recovery programs.

Generally, any work experience working in the public space supporting individuals will be beneficial. This can consist of paid experience or even any tasks that you have undertaken voluntarily, such as caring for a relative, shopping for an elderly neighbor, or mentoring someone at school or in your community. 

Become a community health worker

If you are considering a career as a community health worker, you can learn the basics with the course 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

US BLS. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers, Pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm#tab-5." Accessed January 19, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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