The healthcare field is booming, offering many opportunities to individuals who are interested in making a positive difference in their communities while entering a robust, stable career field. There are two main types of healthcare professionals: those who provide direct patient care (e.g., nurses) and those who work behind the scenes, such as healthcare administrators. However, there is a third role: the community health worker.
What is a community health worker and what’s the process for how to become a community health worker? A community health worker works both behind the scenes and directly with patients, both one-on-one and in small groups. However, these professionals do not deliver direct patient care and are not licensed medical providers.
What Is a Community Health Worker?
A community health worker is a public health specialist. Public health is the branch of medicine that is concerned with the wellness of an entire populace, such as a community, state, country or region of the world. In the case of these particular professionals — as their title suggests — the focus is on a community.
Community health workers typically live in, or close to, the communities they serve. There is often a higher demand for these professionals in communities that are considered to be underserved and marginalized, such as in places where healthcare resources are limited. Community health workers help to ensure equity in access to healthcare.
A typical community health worker will wear many hats. They serve as advocates for the needs of the people they serve, implement wellness outreach programs and strategies, promote health literacy and collect data about their community’s needs.
Work Environments for Community Health Workers
These professionals often work for local or state government agencies. They may also work for nonprofit organizations or family service agencies. Some community health workers work directly within a hospital system or an outpatient care center.
Typical Job Responsibilities for Community Health Workers
The daily routine of a community health worker can look a little different from one day to the next, because their duties are dictated by the needs of the people they serve. For instance, these professionals might secure the services of a Spanish language interpreter in the morning, refer an expectant mother for prenatal care resources in the afternoon, and write up a report about the community’s healthcare needs before clocking out at the end of the day.
In general, however, the duties of a community health worker might include any of the following:
- Develop and maintain trusting relationships with community members, and help them navigate the healthcare and social support systems within the community
- Discuss community members’ health concerns and collect data on health trends within the community
- Develop reports on health data in the community and share the findings with other professionals, such as social service providers, healthcare workers and health education specialists
- Improve health literacy among the populace, such as by educating people about the benefits of vaccinations, hand-washing, cancer screenings and good nutrition
- Deliver informal counseling services and offer social support, such as by connecting people to local support groups and health programs
- Develop, conduct and evaluate health outreach programs
- Provide referrals and help people overcome barriers to accessing healthcare, such as by helping them enroll in Medicare or Medicaid
In general, a community health worker serves as an advocate for their community. They may also provide very basic healthcare services, such as inspecting the feet of diabetic patients or taking height and weight measurements.
Becoming a Community Health Worker
The job of a community health worker is a highly meaningful and socially valuable one. If you aspire to become a community health worker, you should speak with your guidance counselor about your career plans. A guidance counselor can explore the possibility of adding more relevant courses to your schedule.
You might also consider exploring internship and job shadowing opportunities. These opportunities may be available in settings such as hospitals, health clinics, public health agencies, community outreach centers and long-term care facilities.
It’s possible to pursue a position as a community health worker with just a high school diploma or an associate degree — plus a period of on-the-job training. However, these job openings are few in number compared to those available to students with more extensive post-secondary education. If you want to be a competitive candidate, you are strongly encouraged to apply to a bachelor’s degree program in a field such as public health or health sciences.
Earning a Health-Related Bachelor’s Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a community health worker is to obtain a relevant undergraduate degree. There is considerable flexibility regarding the type of degree you can earn, although the degree should pertain to the health field. For instance, you might choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, behavioral health science, nutritional science or counseling.
Because community health workers are deeply involved in the field of public health, a Bachelor of Science in Public Health may be the ideal degree for this career path. A degree in public health teaches you how to be an effective advocate for the communities you serve. The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but in general, students will typically study the following topics:
- The fundamentals of human health, health promotion and disease prevention, with a look at how to encourage people to make healthy lifestyle choices and access preventive wellness services
- The social determinants of health and influences on health behaviors
- The assessment and planning processes of developing public health programming
- The implementation of evidence-based health interventions, allocation of healthcare resources and evaluation of the effectiveness of interventions
- Ethical issues in the public health field, with a look at professionalism, social justice, healthcare equity and cultural diversity
Depending on the school, you may be required to complete a capstone project during your senior year. This may be a research-intensive project concerning a topic in public health. Alternatively, some students may have the opportunity to complete a volunteer service learning experience within their local community.
As you approach your undergraduate graduation date, you must choose between going directly to graduate school and entering the workforce (perhaps with the intention of completing a graduate degree later on). It’s customary for a newly hired community health worker to complete a period of on-the-job training. The competencies covered during the training will vary widely, depending on the state and the employer.
In general, on-the-job training often covers soft skills, such as how to communicate effectively and compassionately with culturally diverse community members. New workers may also be required to complete training modules on the major health issues facing their particular community. They may learn about local healthcare resources as well as the development and implementation of community health outreach programs.
Some training may be specific to a particular patient population. For instance, a community health worker employed by a long-term care facility for senior citizens may learn about communicating effectively with seniors who have dementia.
Enrolling in a Master of Public Health Degree Program
You may choose to earn a master’s in public health after working in the field for a while, or you may decide to go directly to graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for community health workers to earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. However, doing so can expand job opportunities and perhaps empower professionals to pursue advancement possibilities.
A typical MPH degree program will take a deep dive into population health, epidemiology and advocacy. In this program, you can develop strong leadership skills while benefiting from exploring public health topics from a multitude of perspectives. Although the curriculum will vary from one program to the next, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The application of theoretical frameworks that address public health issues, reduce health disparities and effect change in public health at the individual, organizational and community-wide levels
- Distribution and determinants — including biological and social factors — of disease among populations, such as epigenetics, food-borne illnesses and infectious diseases
- The interpretation and application of public health data for the purpose of designing, implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of public health programs
- The complex connections between environmental issues and human health, with a look at urbanization, pollution and climate change
- Effective communication strategies for encouraging positive health behaviors among community members
An MPH degree program may include a practicum component, in which you will complete a certain number of hours of supervised experience in the field. This will allow you to apply theoretical frameworks and practice leadership skills.
Some MPH programs require you to complete a master’s thesis. This is a research-intensive project that culminates in a lengthy paper. However, a master’s thesis does not require you to conduct original experiments or research.
It’s not unusual for MPH programs to require a capstone project instead of a master’s thesis. A public health capstone class involves the development of a major portfolio project. You can often customize your topic to suit your particular professional interests.
Enhancing Career Qualifications With Professional Certifications
Only a handful of states require community health workers to be certified. Some other states have established processes and programs for voluntary certification, although certification may not be necessary. Of course, laws are subject to change, so you should research the regulations that apply to the state where you plan to work.
Regardless of whether certification is required, obtaining a certification can enhance your career qualifications and open up new employment opportunities. As a professional, you can check with your relevant state board to determine whether your state has established a voluntary certification path.
If you’d like to become a community health worker, or if you’re a working professional who would like to pursue advanced opportunities within your current organization, you can take the first step at Grand Canyon University. In addition to our many health-related bachelor’s degree programs, GCU is pleased to offer both a Bachelor of Science in Public Health and a Master of Public Health degree. Graduates will emerge with strong competencies in designing and implementing public health programs in their communities.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.