Community Health Workers: Empowering Communities for Better Health Outcomes

Published on: Nov 5, 2023

In 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the release of $226.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding to launch a national Community Health Worker Training Program1. Though community health work has a long history in public health, the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered a national need for a growing public health workforce like never before. Now more than ever, the need for frontline public health workers is gaining national recognition and opening opportunities in public health. 

In this article, we will delve into the world of community health workers by exploring their common responsibilities, the variations in their roles across different work settings and specializations, and the challenges they face daily. Finally, we’ll offer advice for those considering a career in this rewarding and people-focused field.

The Basics: Defining Community Health Work and Core Responsibilities

What is a community health worker? 

Community health workers, or CHWs, can go by many different job titles, including patient care navigator, outreach worker, lifestyle coach, peer aide, support specialist, community health representative— the list goes on2,3. But despite differences in title, there are several commonalities under the umbrella of community health worker jobs. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community health workers are trained public health workers who serve as a bridge between communities, healthcare systems, and state health departments4. You can think of them as the “glue” of healthcare service delivery– they fill in the gaps between health care services, providers and patients in their communities. CHWs often share cultural, linguistic, or lifestyle similarities with the people they serve, like these Los Angeles-based CHWs that support justice-involved individuals with re-entry5. This combination of health training and local knowledge is ideal for improving community education, connecting people to health interventions, and reducing health disparities among vulnerable populations. 

What are common responsibilities and duties of community health workers? 

In 2007, the US Department of Health and Human Services conducted the Community Health Worker National Workforce Study, which is the only comprehensive national survey on CHW services6. This survey identified the most common work activities of CHWs, which include:  

  • Health Education and Outreach: CHWs work to educate patients, providing vital information on preventive measures, healthy behaviors, and available health care resources. Common tasks include conducting workshops, preparing presentations, providing informal counseling to community members, and disseminating educational materials.

  • Individual Assessment: They also help assess the health needs of individuals. Their duties can involve conducting health screenings, collecting some forms of health data, identifying barriers to care, and creating personalized plans to address those needs.

  • Care Coordination: CHWs collaborate with healthcare providers to assist individuals in navigating the healthcare system. This can include scheduling appointments, ensuring follow-up on treatment plans, and promoting communication between different heath care providers. 

  • Advocacy and Social Support: Community health workers advocate for the rights of community members to access quality health services. They offer emotional support and empower them to overcome challenges in the healthcare landscape. They can also support patients in accessing social services, such as health benefits, health insurance, federal income assistance, and culturally tailored support services. 

  • Collaboration: In order to fulfill their day-to-day tasks, CHWs work in close collaboration with various stakeholders. Collaborators typically include:

    • Healthcare Professionals: CHWs collaborate with doctors, nurses, social workers, and case managers to ensure coordinated and holistic care for individuals. They act as liaisons between patients and providers by sharing information, providing updates, and facilitating referrals.

    • Community Leaders and Organizations: CHWs collaborate with community leaders, policymakers, and local organizations to advocate for health equity, develop community-specific strategies, and foster partnerships that enhance access to healthcare resources.

What are not common responsibilities and duties of community health workers? 

While CHWs are vital contributors to community health, there are certain tasks that fall outside their scope of practice. It is important to understand these limitations, which typically include direct medical treatment, diagnosing illnesses, and prescribing medications. CHWs are not primary care providers. These duties are reserved for trained and licensed healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses, and CHWs work in collaboration with these professionals to ensure individuals receive appropriate medical care. Under proper guidance and training, they may assist with administering some services, like blood pressure screening and first aid2.

Digging Deeper: Role Variation, Challenges, and Workforce Trends

How do the responsibilities and duties of community health workers vary by setting and specialization?

There can be a lot of diversity among CHW roles. Some aspects of role variation include: 

  • Work Setting Diversity: CHWs can be found in various settings, such as hospitals, clinics, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and community-based organizations. The specific duties may differ based on the context and population they serve. For instance, CHWs working to improve rural health may face unique challenges related to accessing healthcare in remote regions.

  • Specialized Health Issues: CHWs may focus on specific health issues such as maternal health, chronic disease management, mental health, or substance abuse. Their roles may involve providing targeted support, education, and resources related to the specific health concern. A CHW working with an initiative to prevent heart disease, for example, will need to have some background health knowledge regarding nutrition and physical activity. 

Additionally, the responsibilities and duties of CHWs can vary greatly depending on their work setting and specialization. Some of these duties include:

  • Interpretation and Translation Services: CHWs may need to provide language and translation support, particularly in situations where the health care service providers are not of the same community as the patients served. For example, global health relief missions often plan to hire locals who can support translation between foreign healthcare professionals and the local community. CHWs being a part of the community they serve is also very important when there are differing cultural views on medical treatment options. 

  • Mentorship: The DHHS CHW Workforce Study found that mentorship was a less reported work activity, with 21% of respondents identifying this as one of their job duties6. Mentorship may become an informal part of the relationship between CHWs that are serving peers, such as a Substance Abuse Recovery specialist that is supporting those actively in the recovery process by using their own journey as guidance. In contrast, a community health worker in a hospital setting may relate less personally with the people they serve. 

What challenges do community health workers face on a daily basis?

CHWs may encounter a range of challenges in their daily work, including:

  • Limited Resources: CHWs often work in resource-constrained environments, which can impact their ability to provide comprehensive support and services. Positions may also be short-term or have very little room for salary negotiation, depending on the needs and funding availability of the hiring organization. 

  • Cultural and Language Barriers: Serving diverse populations requires CHWs to navigate cultural norms, beliefs, and language barriers. If a CHW does not share cultural similarities with the community they are serving, they should educate themselves through language learning and practicing cultural humility.

  • Trust-Building: It’s not easy to establish yourself as a trusted member of a community. CHWs invest time and effort to establish relationships and credibility, ensuring individuals feel comfortable seeking assistance and sharing personal health information. 

How are Community Health Worker Jobs changing? 

In some settings, you may hear community health workers referred to as “lay health workers”. This term is often used to emphasize the fact that CHWs often do not need extensive formal education to perform their job duties. From a healthcare service delivery perspective, this can be advantageous because they are able to fill in the gaps of the health care systems when resources (including health care professionals) are limited.

But this term is not intended to diminish the work that they do. In fact, recent health services research suggests that there is a shift happening among US employers seeking CHWs7. While CHWs are traditionally hired by community-based organizations, more hospitals and health systems are beginning to directly hire for these roles themselves. Employers report valuing education and training more than traditional characteristics associated with CHWs, such as peer status and shared experience with patients6.

So, what does this mean for someone looking to shift to a career in public health? 

The workforce currently values educated, passionate people who can understand and navigate the healthcare system. Community health work is a great career option for someone who wants to get a feel for public health work before applying for an MPH.

Getting Started: Training and Advice

What training is needed to become a community health worker?

If you search for CHW training opportunities online, you will find an abundance of different community health worker program options online offered by different schools, professional associations, and government agencies. Sifting through this information can make it hard to discern what is required. 

The bottom line is that there isn’t a unifying guideline for required community health worker training requirements. Much like community health work itself, certification and training requirements are typically specific to the community where you plan to serve.

Requirements mostly depend on location and employer preferences. Typically, community health workers need at least a high school diploma and a brief period of on-the-job training8. CHW certification may be required or preferred for some health community health workers, but only some states require you to be a certified community health worker. For example, the Pennsylvania Certification Board provides statewide certifications for community health workers9. You should consult your state’s certification board to see if they provide CHW certifications and be referred to local resources. 

Advice for Those Considering a Career as a Community Health Worker

If you are contemplating a career as a community health worker, here are some key tips to keep in mind:

  • Learn about your education and training options: The training required to become a CHW can vary greatly by location. Check a credible state organization, like the Georgia Community Health Worker Initiative (CHWI), for the best information on your local CHW program options and requirements10. Overall, you’ll want to seek relevant training in public health, community health and engagement, and cultural competency to acquire a strong foundation for your career. These organizations also provide resources for keeping your certification up to date, such as continuing education credits. 

  • Save time by doubling up: Because CHW training can be completed quickly, you can save time and money by integrating training into your other education plans. Check if your undergraduate or graduate school has community health worker training or certificate options that you can integrate into your schedule. You can also check with state professional organizations, like the Pennsylvania CHW Collaborative or Community Health Worker Network of NYC, which provide resources and information about trainings for CHWs11,12

  • Collaborate and Network: Foster collaborations with healthcare professionals, community organizations, and stakeholders. Networking can open doors to new opportunities, enabling you to make a greater impact as a CHW. The American Public Health Association has a community health worker section13. Consider becoming a member of attending events to connect with CHWs across the country. 

    By understanding the common responsibilities, variations, collaborations, challenges, and valuable advice for aspiring CHWs, you can embark on a rewarding public health career path that makes a lasting difference in the lives of communities and individuals they serve.

About the Authors

Written by:

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Wandia Mureithi, MPH is a public health project manager working in research and evaluation. Wandia received her Master’s in Public Health from Drexel University in 2022. Since beginning her career in 2018, she has been engaged in research projects and program evaluations related to sexual health, human trafficking prevention, tobacco prevention, opioid misuse treatment, and diabetes prevention. 

In addition to her work projects, Wandia is interested in reducing maternal and child health disparities and advancing social justice in public health. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Wandia Mureithi portrait photograph

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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