Community Health Workers: A Vital Profession to Michigan’s Health and Human Services Workforce

By Katherine Mitchell

Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance

Community Health Workers (CHWs) are public health professionals working in agencies statewide to address health disparities, access to care, and social determinants that challenge the health of our communities. CHWs are trusted members of the communities they serve, effectively connecting at-risk communities to health care and human services and promote better health. They complement existing care providers by delivering information, building relationships, coordinating care with high-need residents, and empowering community members to make health promoting behavior changes. Nationally, and in Michigan, CHWs have successfully helped community residents manage chronic conditions, develop healthier lifestyles, improve maternal and child health, increase rates of preventive screenings, and improve access to and use of health care and social services through outreach, enrollment, and patient education.

This is a guest post from Katherine Mitchell, Project Coordinator at the Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance

Where are CHWs now?

CHWs are currently employed by a variety of agencies including health departments, federally qualified health centers and health center look-alikes, health systems, community and social service providers, non-profits, and government agencies. They provide services and engage clients in multiple settings, including urban and rural areas, schools, homes, community centers, and clinics. They also go by many names, including, but not limited to, community outreach worker, promotor(a), family health advocate, maternal child health worker, patient health navigator, peer support specialist, and HIV/AIDS outreach worker.

What do employers need to know?

CHWs are a vital workforce. Because they have intimate knowledge of the community served, CHWs work as a unique member of the health care team to engage patients in a distinct way. CHWs are trained in core competencies that include advocacy, outreach, social support, community engagement and capacity building, legal and ethical responsibilities, data reporting, health promotion and education, and care coordination. Though CHWs have been trained and hired in Michigan since the 1960s, employers are more recently recognizing their valuable contributions to improving community-wide health. With a renewed emphasis on outreach and enrollment activities and recognition of the impact social determinants have on health, CHWs are increasingly being utilized to reach underserved areas and assist clients with health and social concerns. Employers have an opportunity with the implementation of health care reform and the increase in number of insured residents to use CHWs as health care team members, working alongside providers including nurses, social workers, physicians, dieticians, and other practitioners. CHWs link community members to established systems of care as a way to impact the targeted population and improve overall public/community health.

How can I learn more?

There are efforts underway in Michigan to have CHWs recognized for the contributions they make and to grow and sustain the CHW workforce in all areas of the state. For more information about these efforts or to learn more about CHWs, visit www.michwa.org.

Definition: Community Health Worker

A Community Health Worker (CHW) 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 CHW 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.

A CHW also builds individual and community capacity by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency through a range of activities such as outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy. (American Public Health Association CHW Section, 2009)

Michigan is reported to have 2,724 CHWs (i) and Michigan employers reported 655 current CHW employees in 2012. (ii)

(i) Bureau of Health Professions, Health Resources and Services Administration. Community Health Worker National Workforce Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. DHHS, 2007.

(ii) Education and Workforce Working Group, Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance. MiCHWA Employer Survey 2012: Final Report. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan School of Social Work, Curtis Center Program Evaluation Group. 2012, October 10.

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