What is a Community Health Worker (CHW)? Your guide to understanding the impact of effective community health worker programs and how they work
A community health worker (CHW) is a frontline worker dedicated to providing quality health care to their local community. Their close relationship with those they serve fosters a trust that gives their health recommendations, diagnoses, and referrals added authority.1 As a link to available health facilities, clinics, and other resources, the community health worker’s objective is to improve the quality and availability of healthcare for underserved communities.
Most vulnerable populations are unable to access health services where they live – and when they can, the quality of care is usually low. Community health workers can offer essential care to these communities where they live. According to the World Health Organization, “the increased coverage of essential health services and improved equity in coverage envisioned by well-functioning community health worker programmes will result in fewer deaths and illnesses and lower disease burdens.”
CHWs by the numbers
Community health workers are often selected by their community and end up being disproportionately female – more than 70%. Many countries also establish requirements for their community health worker candidates. For instance, to help support their maternal and child health initiatives, the Mozambique Ministry of Health has been giving preference to female candidates while requiring a minimum of a seventh-grade education.
According to the World Health Organization, “the increased coverage of essential health services and improved equity in coverage envisioned by well-functioning community health worker programmes will result in fewer deaths and illnesses and lower disease burdens.”5
Recently, the World Health Organization released recommendations for the selection criteria for community health workers:
Minimum educational level
Membership of and acceptance by the target community
Gender equity appropriate to the context (considering affirmative action to preferentially select women to empower them and, where culturally relevant, to ensure acceptability of services by the population or target group)
Personal attributes, capacities, values, and life and professional experiences of the candidates (e.g. cognitive abilities, integrity, motivation, interpersonal skills, demonstrated commitment to community service, and a public service ethos)
The same recommendations also instruct programs not to select community health workers based on either age or marital status. According to an analysis by USAID, the most common selection criteria for CHWs were community residency, literacy, and gender. 6