Definition: Community Health Worker (Noun) -- “A community health worker is a frontline public health worker who is a trusted member of and/or has an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the worker to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.” (The American Public Health Association)
Like many Americans, I was not familiar with community health workers (CHWs) and the many roles they play in supporting patient care before I came to my current role at Johnson & Johnson. We don’t often hear about CHWs when talking about health in the U.S., but over the last year, I've learned an incredible amount about, and from, CHWs, that have fundamentally expanded my view—most importantly, that if we are serious about eliminating health inequities, we must invest in community-based care, and specifically CHWs.
Why? Because healthcare in the U.S. needs to prioritize culturally competent care, and this is precisely where CHWs shine. CHWs are typically from and/or live in the communities to which they deliver care, and as a result, they are uniquely able to build trust through shared experiences, language and customs. They fill a range of roles, meeting patients wherever they are. This can be through community outreach or education, informal counseling, social support or advocacy.
I’ve learned of a group of promotoras (CHWs in Spanish-speaking communities) in New Brunswick, New Jersey who are often underpaid or not paid at all, but have nevertheless dedicated themselves to supporting their community. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for CHWs, whose work often goes unseen compared to other health workers. Programs that train and support them are under-resourced, under-paid and under-supported.
In my role at Johnson & Johnson, I feel fortunate to support programs that directly address these issues and collectively work towards a future in which everyone has easy access to localized and compassionate care.
In New York City, for example, Johnson & Johnson supports the InTOuCH CHW Training Program at Columbia University, which equips new CHWs with skills, education and tools to promote health in their own neighborhoods and community groups. Alumni of the program act as health advocates in their communities and in faith-based organizations. In July, the program celebrated the graduation of the 15th, and largest-ever, cohort of new CHWs.
Mary Redd, one of the first-ever graduates of the program, considers CHWs to be “ambassadors,” who help community members learn about their health and take informed steps to improve it. I love that articulation because it truly showcases CHWs as bridge-builders between an often complex and intimidating health system and the people it serves, people who—like everyone—deserve quality care and dignified treatment.
When we think about improving health equity in the U.S., access to care easily comes to mind. Beyond access, improving the quality of care and ensuring that patients feel heard and supported are critical components of care. A patient connected to a CHW is also connected to the vast healthcare system where they can access services with the guidance of an expert who understands them. I know I could definitely use an advocate to help me navigate my care, and I'm sure many others would share the same sentiment regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Compassionate healthcare from a trusted source is something that every person deserves.
To truly advance health equity, the U.S. health system must undergo a paradigm shift to be more community-centric by taking a holistic view of healthcare that addresses the many factors that impact health and well-being. When this happens, every person, no matter their socioeconomic status or the color of their skin, will enjoy better healthcare.
This National Community Health Worker Awareness Week, join me in celebrating the profound impact CHWs have on their communities and health systems as a whole, and in continuing the work to realize a health system that encourages the full breadth of their potential. Check out this video or even consider sharing information with someone who may be interested in being a CHW.
Coretta Scott King once said “the greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” I’m so grateful for CHWs who act with compassion and show up every day to make our communities great! Thank you!