Community health workers are frontline public health professionals that link health and social services with the communities they serve.
Community health workers are called upon to facilitate a community’s access to services and improve the quality of those services and the efficiency with which they are delivered. They analyze the health effects associated with personal choice, the environment, and genetics in order to develop programs that are relevant to the health of families, communities, and populations. Their work promotes health and prevents disease within the communities they serve.
Their work increases health knowledge through a variety of activities, including:
- Community education
- Informal counseling
- Social support
Their job duties may therefore include:
- Developing community-based programs
- Helping people complete applications and forms to receive health benefits
- Visiting homes to check on individuals
- Linking people to needed health care information and services
- Developing culturally appropriate materials, curricula, and campaigns
- Designing data collection tools that measure program processes and outcomes
- Designing and conducting training materials for diverse audiences
- Developing resources for health professionals
- Delivering healthcare presentations
These professionals perform their jobs along a continuum that ranges from individuals to communities. They work in all geographical settings, although they are most often found working in underprivileged communities with people of limited resources. Limited resources may include a lack of access to quality healthcare; a lack of funds to pay for healthcare; or values, behaviors, or beliefs that are different from those of the American healthcare system. As such, their goal is to serve as a bridge between the community and the healthcare, social services, and government systems.
Community health workers often live in the communities they serve, and they spend the majority of their time traveling throughout the community, visiting people, healthcare facilities, and community groups, distributing information, and connecting with local people. Some community health workers work in healthcare facilities, where they provide client education, case management, and follow-up care, while others are employed by nonprofit and government groups where they organize healthcare, health education, preventive services, and healthcare enrollment.
It is common for community health workers who are employed for healthcare agencies to focus their work on a specific disease or population. For example, they may be called upon to promote the health of pregnant women and children, the elderly, or the homeless, or they may provide education for a specific health issue, such as HIV/AIDS or obesity.
Community Health Jobs: Community Health Professionals in the Public Health Sector
Community health professionals are often referred to as health coaches, community health advisors, advocates, educators, liaisons, promoters, outreach workers, peer counselors, patient navigators, and public health aides, among others. However, there are a few professional titles that are most often associated with community health jobs in public health:
Food Service Inspectors/Sanitarians
Sanitarians, also referred to as food service inspectors, are responsible for inspecting food service operators and retail food establishments to ensure they are abiding by all laws and regulations regarding food storage, handling, serving, and preparation. Sanitarians serve an important role in public health because they work to ensure a safe and healthy food supply and reduce the number of people who are sickened from food-borne illnesses.
Patient advocates help patients understand and invoke their rights. Their responsibilities also include advocating for patient rights and needs, protecting the confidentiality of patients through HIPAA, and advocating for the handicapped to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Patient advocates educate and inform patients of policies, procedures, and systems and address their concerns about care and safety within the public health facility. Their work involves being present to answer questions and make recommendations or suggestions.
Patient advocates in public health also often work for nonprofit organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association, or for organizations that advocate for patient safety, such as the National Patient Safety Foundation, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and the National Patient Advocate Foundation. Further, there are a growing number of for-profit organizations that offer services to patients in need of navigating the healthcare system or their personal health care.
Program coordinators are usually called upon to oversee public health programs. Their major responsibilities generally include studying data to identify community needs and analyzing public health programs throughout their implementation to review their effectiveness.
In short, these public health professionals are responsible for delegating, planning, implementing, and evaluating programs, as well as assisting in the integration of research and best practices for specific programs in public health. Their work involves developing program strategies, monitoring health and social trends, and analyzing program data and related information.
Community health program coordinators:
- Develop action plans to ensure the efficient implementation of public health programs
- Oversee grant contracts and prepares reports regarding the program’s continuity
- Provide technical assistance, consultation and guidance to health-related organizations, agencies, institutions, and research entities to develop and improve public health studies, programs, strategies, and services
- Ensure the implementation of effective communication strategies designed to disseminate public health information to specific populations
Directors of Family Health Services
Directors of family health centers are administrative-level public health professionals who plan, coordinate, and manage family health programs for organizations and public health departments.
Family health centers provide innovative programs that address significant issues that face individuals and families within a community who are most vulnerable. Family health center services often include domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, parenting resources, and supportive housing for families and individuals with disabilities, just to name a few.
The work of directors of family health centers includes hiring, assigning, and distributing staff, overseeing budgets, and ensuring that client services are executed and effective.
They may also work to establish policies and procedures that support the delivery of public healthcare services, identify client needs for the implementation and creation of new programs, and provide ongoing evaluations of programs to ensure that service and sustainability goals are met.
Outreach specialists are hands-on public health professionals who are responsible for overseeing outreach initiatives that support health support and services within an organization.
Outreach specialists often work for community health centers, public hospitals, and other nonprofit organizations, and their work is generally focused on contemporary topics in public health, such as obesity, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and smoking. Examples of outreach initiatives overseen by outreach specialists include exercise classes and fitness programs to support weight loss programs or support groups for victims of domestic violence.
These professionals also often provide public education, staff supervision, and treatment evaluation. They may conduct surveys and tests as to collect data regarding the specific needs of a community and collaborate with partner organizations to provide comprehensive outreach services.
Education Requirements for Community Health Professionals
Undergraduate pursuits by community health professionals are often in the social sciences, environmental sciences, or the political sciences. Typical bachelor degrees include biology, anthropology, healthcare administration, public health, and public policy.
Education requirements for public health professionals have gradually moved from bachelor degrees to master’s degrees, and the Master of Public Health (MPH) has become the norm for upper-level professionals in public health.
An MPH in Community Health (also commonly called Community Health Sciences and Community Health Promotion) allows students to explore the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations and promote health among these populations by teaching them to design, implement, and evaluate evidence-based interventions for public health problems in populations.
The practice-based curriculum of an MPH in Community Health prepares students to translate research into community and policy interventions.
In addition to the five, core areas of study in an MPH program (epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, health systems management, and biological/social/cultural aspects of health and disease), an MPH in Community Health includes a number of courses designed specifically for community health professionals:
- Planning of Health Education Programs
- Monitoring and Evaluation of Health Education and Communications Programs
- Critical Issue Interventions
- Intervention Approaches