You can begin exploring the field of community health while you are still in high school. Consider volunteering at a social service agency or a local medical office. You might be able to assist community health workers or health educators as they provide information and services to the elderly, people from underserved populations, and others. You can also help an elderly relative or neighbor schedule medical appointments, obtain information about a health care issue, or complete other tasks that help them to live a more healthy life. Ask your high school health teacher or career counselor to set up an information interview with a community health worker. Perhaps you could even job shadow CHWs as they assist members of the community, give presentations, and perform other duties.
Community health workers perform a variety of duties depending on where they work, their specific job title, and other factors. Some work very closely with health educators, community health nurses, and other public health professionals, while others have more latitude to independently develop and operate outreach and advocacy programs.
Regardless of their duties and work relationships, the main goal of community health workers is to help members of underserved populations or those in otherwise neglected communities live healthier lives and obtain the medical and social services that they need. The following paragraphs spotlight some of their main duties.
Some CHWs are trained to provide case management services under the supervision of a community health nurse. They connect participants to needed services, and educate clients about how to access and use medical and social services to address their needs. This is especially important when a client has a complex disease (such as cancer) that requires the care and assistance of a variety of health care and social services professionals.
Community health workers teach clients about diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, asthma, tuberculosis, and cancer. For example, if a patient has asthma, the CHW will provide him or her with an overview of the disease, discuss the medications that are used to treat the disease, provide tips on physical fitness, and educate the client about nutritional choices that improve or worsen the condition. If the client is a smoker, they encourage him or her to participate in a smoking cessation program and take other steps to quit smoking. They also direct the client to programs that offer free or reduced pricing for asthma medication or treatments.
On a larger scale, CHWs create health publications and presentations—as well as organize wellness fairs and other events—to educate members of the community about disease prevention, proper nutrition, the benefits of regular exercise, mental health issues, the importance of health screenings and vaccinations, and other topics that promote good health. Some have a presence on social media, and post information about opportunities to receive free vaccines, health screenings, or other resources.
With training, CHWs can be taught how to identify basic health conditions (and then convey this information to nurses and physicians); take blood pressure, temperature, and pulse rate; and administer basic screening instruments (e.g., rapid diagnostic tests). Some CHWs even receive training to work as birth attendants.
Community health workers visit the homes of clients to deliver psychosocial support, perform environmental health assessments, evaluate and improve maternal and child health, and provide one-on-one counseling and support. After observing the home environment and talking with the client, the CHW suggests solutions (mental health counseling, child care resources, etc.) and provides referrals to these and other services.
Community health professionals work with civic leaders, community organizers, and health and social service organizations to identify shortfalls in services and encourage community action. They also work as liaisons with government officials and health care executives to try to improve conditions in the community.
Community health workers gather data about health conditions/outcomes, poverty, community barriers to good health (including environmental issues, crime, and access to healthy food and clean water), and other topics as they do their work. They write reports and convey this information to health educators, who use the data and feedback to improve existing programs or launch new ones.
Community health workers are unique in some respects because—unlike workers in many other occupations—they are intricately linked to their communities. The National Institutes of Health says that CHWs “usually share ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, and life experiences with the community members they serve.” These connections create trust within the community and often allow them to be more effective than CHWs who do not share these traits. Because of this familiarity, they are better able to understand the needs of their communities (some of whom have beliefs and practices regarding health care and wellness that differ from conventional Western culture). This knowledge and familiarity allows them to explain the views of the community to health and social service providers, develop programs that are geared to address these different cultural viewpoints, and advocate effectively for their needs.
Some clients have low or no English proficiency. In this situation, CHWs who are fluent in the language (Spanish, Mandarin, Polish, etc.) of their clients translate health diagnoses, prescriptions, wellness brochures, and vaccination information so that their clients more easily understand the information and can make more informed decisions. Community health workers also connect non-English–speaking clients with medical and social services professionals who are fluent in their native language.