The U.S. health care system can seem daunting and inaccessible to many. The process of obtaining and navigating health care is even more intimidating to people who come from impoverished and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Community health workers operate and reside in neighborhoods they know well, providing people with a sense of security and familiarity as they help residents meet their health care needs.
Community health workers often have cultural, religious, and socioeconomic similarities with the clients with whom they work. These commonalities inspire community health workers to advocate for their clients as if they’re advocating for their own friends and families.
Students and other professionals with many different educational experiences and personal backgrounds find themselves drawn to the world of community health. One of the most direct ways of getting there is by earning an advanced degree. Those who want to become community health workers need to be well-educated about all of the health problems and types of people they’ll be interacting with. As such, an online Master of Public Health can help eager individuals learn the skills and dedication that being a community health worker requires.
Community Health Workers at a Glance
Community health workers wear many hats as they help their communities navigate the U.S. health care system. Not only do community health workers serve as a bridge between the people with whom they work and health care centers, but they are also trained in tracking health goals and spotting the signs of individuals who need particular care.
- Establishing a connection. While doctors, nurses, and other health care workers might see hundreds of people a day from all over a city, community health workers see a smaller range of clients more frequently. This allows them to get to know their clients personally, connecting with them on a level that other health care professionals often cannot. Community health workers interact with people outside of health care settings, such as in their homes or neighborhood parks. These workers are usually assigned to neighborhoods that have similar racial, economic, and political demographics to the neighborhoods in which they grew up, as people may be more inclined to listen to medical advice they receive from someone who can empathize with what they’re going through.
- Advocating for clients. Community health workers strive to uplift the voices of clients who might not have been able to advocate for themselves for a variety of reasons. They help clients access basic needs such as food and transportation by helping them sign up for government programs or other forms of local assistance. They also assist their clients in scheduling appointments and follow-ups, as well as finding the best insurance options to cover costs. Some clients may have limited English skills, in which case the health worker will help by translating paperwork and phone calls, as well as by facilitating communication during in-person appointments.
- Promoting healthy living. Along with helping their clients meet health care needs, community health workers also encourage their clients to live healthy lives and engage in preventive measures against common diseases. Either individually or in groups, they inform their clients on topics such as the importance of cardiovascular exercise and the dangers of smoking. Depending on their area of work, they may try to target a health risk that affects a specific community more than others. For example, in predominantly African American neighborhoods, a health worker might try to target ways to prevent developing diabetes, as African American adults are 60% more likely to be diagnosed as diabetic than non-Hispanic white adults. Lower socioeconomic areas are also often fraught with addiction, so community health workers in those neighborhoods would help promote clean living and provide information on anonymous meetings and rehabilitation facilities.
Community Health Worker Salary
While some community health workers are volunteers, others have turned community health work into a full-time career. The community health worker salary will never define these professionals as much as the impact they make on their communities, but through dedication and experience, they may earn a respectable salary.
According to PayScale, the median community health worker salary is approximately $37,100 annually, with the top 10% exceeding $50,000. Community health workers’ salaries also tend to be higher in metropolitan areas such as New York and Boston. Case managers and community health supervisors are some of the more coveted and higher-paying positions in the field. Candidates with five or more years of relevant experience or with advanced degrees such as a Master of Public Health are more likely to fill these positions, which can pay more than $60,000 per year. Community health workers in scientific research and developmental services earn upward of $65,000 annually.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment opportunities for community health workers to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028, which is twice as high as the average projection for all occupations. The growth may be even higher in metropolitan areas. This positive job outlook is the result of hospitals and health care centers expanding their reach into communities in an attempt to lower the number of patients who need to be seen for serious health problems each year. Community health workers can help keep their clients at home, instead of filling the limited number of hospital beds.
The Skills of Community Health Workers
Community health workers utilize a wide set of skills to help lift their neighborhoods to a place where they’re as healthy and secure as possible.
- Communication. Community health workers are responsible for communicating with their clients, as well as communicating their clients’ needs to other health care professionals. They must speak clearly and concisely so that no information gets lost as they act as a liaison between parties. They also need to communicate to their clients with a sense of urgency when clients’ health needs are approaching dangerous territory.
- Health risk assessment. While a rigorous amount of medical training isn’t required to become a community health worker, these professionals must learn the basics of how to assess clients for mental and physical health risks. Different states have varying requirements and certifications in place for community health workers. For example, in Texas, the requirement is 160 hours of classroom certification or 1,000 hours of field experience as a community health worker.
Earning a Master of Public Health is a great way for prospective community health workers to begin gaining the experience and knowledge to assess communities and inspire healthy changes in the areas where they work and reside.
- Education. Not all clients have the same capacity to learn, so community health workers must tailor their approaches to communicating information. If clients are illiterate, for example, health workers can read to them rather than passing out literature. They might also put together videos or slideshows that are more accessible for a specific audience. Scaffolding, multiple means of engagement, and lesson management are all helpful teaching strategies that community health workers should use to better inform their clients.
- Service coordination/organization skills. Service coordination includes duties such as getting clients to their appointments on time and making sure they show up with all of the necessary documents and forms of identification. Community health workers have dozens of clients with different needs. Even though the clients live in approximately the same neighborhood, some may need to visit facilities that are far away. As a result, community health workers must keep track of client appointments and coordinate with service departments and facility staff. Organization and strategic planning for service coordination are both essential to fulfilling a community health worker’s responsibilities. Students and professionals looking toward a career as a community health worker can develop and hone these skills through earning a Master of Public Health online from Ohio University.
Become a Community Health Worker with a Degree from Ohio University
Community health workers are at the forefront of making health care equitable and keeping communities safe and healthy. Their mission to provide access to preventive and responsive health services in a community requires vast knowledge and dedication. If you’re interested in making a difference in public health, consider enrolling in Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health as the next step in your career.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Role of Community Health Workers
PayScale, Average Community Health Worker Hourly Pay
Rural Health Info, “Roles of Community Health Workers”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019: 21-1094
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Diabetes and African Americans