I’ve always known that I wanted to make a career out of helping people. I spent a couple years as a Recovery Specialist for people diagnosed with Severe and Persistent Mental Illnesses, a year as a volunteer for a local homeless shelter, and have since moved into a Social Service based role at a Federally Qualified Health Center (AKA a non-profit medical center), and my title is, “Community Health Worker”.
What is a Community Health Worker?
Community health workers, otherwise known as CHWs, serve as a liaison between the health and social service systems, making health care and social services accessible to individuals and the community. We often share experiences within the communities we serve; think ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic status, or speaking the same language.
What do we do exactly?
- Connect community members to health resources
- Help community members improve their health and lifestyle by connection to proper healthcare and social services.
- Typically serving the underprivileged and marginalized by; improving access to health care, connection to lower cost health care options and funding scholarships, reducing language access barriers, etc.
- Health promotion & coaching
- The goal is to help promote self-sufficiency with the use of motivational interviewing, to help people understand the best way to take care of themselves.
- We sometimes teach classes and promote healthy living through groups. My coworkers and myself are certified instructors who lead bi-annual Arthritis Foundation walking classes called Walk with Ease.
- Advocacy for the community
- We help individuals and the community understand how to get in contact with healthcare and social service resources in the area, to gain access to health care, affordable medicine, health insurance, housing, and food.
- There are community members who have never accessed social service resources, this is coming up more and more as there is a rise in unemployment. When you do not know where to begin, a CHW will complete applications when needed, make 3-way calls to agencies for added support, reach out and ask agencies for donations to fund (home repairs, car repairs, etc.) if and when necessary, and much more.
- Make home visits
- Before COVID-19, we often make routine home visits to patients who need safety checks, or those who are chronically ill, elderly clients, and those at high risk of mental illness. Now, during the pandemic, we will deliver medical supplies, prescriptions, food boxes, and even paperwork to patients doorsteps, all in order to reduce barriers to accessing care or resources.
- Improving communication
- CHWs provide routine social support by following up with community members regularly, advising them on how to continue to connect to services. By showing continued support, members feel cared for and empowered to be self-sufficient in accessing services.
Why have I never heard of this position?
CHWs work for local hospitals and health care clinics. They go by more names than one, other common names include; Peer Support Specialists, Peer Wellness Specialists, Health Auxiliaries, Health Agents, Health Promoters, Family Welfare Educators, Village Health Workers, Community Health Aides, Lay Health Workers, and Health Advisors… that’s a lot of different titles for very similar roles.
Community Health Worker positions are not a part of every health care system, but the role is showing up more and more often. Healthcare providers and social service agencies take note of the impact CHWs are making to mitigate avoidable health issues, as these agencies are diligently trying to find better ways to address social determinants of health.
What Are Social Determinants of Health?
Social determinants of health are the socio-economic conditions and neighborhood resources, that influence patient’s health outcomes. These are environments in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.
Our environments can help to explain why some people are healthier than others. Our health is determined by the level of resources we have access too; the opportunities available to us, what neighborhoods we live in, access to quality education, safety, cleanliness of our water, access to food, our social interactions, and our relationships to those within these environments. Resources that are in place to enhance the quality of life can have a significant influence on health outcomes. Examples of these resources include safe and affordable housing, access to education, public safety, availability of healthy foods, local emergency/health services, and environments free of life-threatening toxins.
Examples of social determinants include:
- Availability of resources to meet daily needs
- Access to educational, economic, and job opportunities
- Access to health care services
- Access to housing and utility services
- Food insecurity and inaccessibility of nutritious food choices
- Access to safe drinking water, clean air, and toxin-free environments
- Quality of education and job training
- Transportation options
- Social support
- Social norms and attitudes (e.g., discrimination, racism, and distrust of government)
- Gender inequity
- Early childhood experiences and development
- Crime rates and exposure to violent behavior
- Recreational and leisure opportunities