Social Work

Thinking About Becoming a Community Health Worker? Here’s Your Guide.

Thinking About Becoming a Community Health Worker? Here’s Your Guide.
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Molly Shea August 26, 2019

There are lots of entry points to a career in community health work, for everyone from high school graduates to PhDs. You won't get rich in this field, but you will help bring essential healthcare information to people in need.

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In the mid-1900s, the Chinese government realized it had a problem. The country’s educated doctors typically settled in major cities, leaving vast swaths of the rural population without access to modern healthcare. The government’s solution was to train a group of “barefoot doctors.” These community members—often working farmers—received enough medical training to identify and treat common conditions and diseases, promote preventative care and family planning, and teach basic hygiene.

Today, the barefoot doctor initiative serves as the foundation of modern-day community health work, in which embedded community members help those around them gain access to medical information and care. Common in countries throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, community health work is growing as a career field in America, too. If this opportunity intrigues you, here’s what you need to know.  


Pros and cons of becoming a community health worker

Pros

  • You can get involved at all levels. A variety of careers fall under the community health worker umbrella, and it’s possible to work as a CHW with just a high school diploma. There are also opportunities for those with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and even PhDs. It just depends on the type of work required.
  • The work is gratifying. You’ll be helping people gain access to healthcare they otherwise would not get. If you don’t find that gratifying, this is probably not the right job for you.

Cons

  • Funding can be unpredictable. The community health field is largely funded by government programs, an unreliable source (because government priorities shift depending on who is in power).
  • The bureaucracy can be frustrating. The paperwork and certification requirements for government programs are legendarily complex and confusing. If you get into this profession, prepare for the occasional banging of your head against the proverbial brick wall.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Kinds of community health worker careers

Community health workers, or CHWs, serve as a liaison between medical professionals and members of their own community, helping to educate community members on health systems as well as topics such as mental health and disease prevention.

CHWs often have more specific job titles, such as:

  • Caseworker 
  • Counselor
  • Health or nutrition educator
  • Health advocate

Community health workers might work alongside helping professionals like:

There are CHW jobs available in:

  • Hospitals 
  • Government organizations 
  • Outpatient programs
  • Individual/family services
  • Religious and professional (and other) organizations 

Some community health workers even work internationally, helping to build stronger healthcare systems abroad and educate local health professionals. 

Many CHWs work as health educators, helping to pass along information to fellow community members. Others work more as healthcare providers, offering informal counseling and essential medical care coordination and preventive services to those in need. 

As of 2018, the  median annual earnings for a community health worker were just under $40,000, or an hourly rate of around $19 per hour. Those who work in hospitals make slightly more, on average, while family services and outpatient care employees tend to make slightly less. CHWs with a bachelor’s or master’s degree typically earn more than CHWs with only a high school diploma. 


Educational commitment to become a community health worker

A variety of degrees can lead to a career as a community health worker. Certain positions simply require a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some positions do require a four-year bachelor’s degree, often in a health or science-related field. Other CHW jobs require master’s degrees. 

For jobs requiring a master’s, a Master’s in Public Health, which teaches everything from policy to communication skills, is perhaps the most appropriate. Master’s degrees in social work, counseling, and nursing can also translate to CHW careers. These degrees can require from one to two years of full-time study and often require an internship or field placement. 

Some states offer guidelines for community health work training programs.


Licensure and accreditation for becoming a community health worker

Because community health work is still an emerging field, many states do not have a CHW certification program. Twenty states have some requirements in place: they require training with certification, licensing, or both.

Those hoping to advance their careers as community health workers in the meantime might look into other forms of certification, such as becoming a: 

For information on your own state’s CHW certification status, look on the American Public Health Association website for your local community health workers association. 


Resources for becoming a community health worker

Since community health work is a new and developing field, resources for researching career opportunities can be challenging to find. Start with university departments of public health, mental health, or social work, which should be able to advise potential students.

Interested applicants might also consider interning or volunteering with health educators in their community, and getting a sense for:

  • Community members
  • Population needs
  • Social support 
  • Available social services 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a webpage listing online resources for community health workers, including a toolkit for active CHWs. Some health organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association, also maintain resource banks for CHWs.

Paying for a CHW-appropriate education can be a hurdle for potential students, as can the lack of standardized accreditations across the country. Those interested in community health work should stay up to date on their state’s certification process. There are grants and scholarships available for students who hope to become CHWs. For more information, look to your local universities’ financial aid websites.


Typical advancement paths for becoming a community health worker

Most community health workers start off as administrators, working for government agencies and non-profit organizations that provide health services to local communities. Those with master’s degrees might take on leadership positions or work one-on-one with community members as healthcare providers. 

CHWs get training in health-related issues and core competencies, and often gain experience in informal counseling, which makes starting a career as a CHW a great stepping stone for a more specialized career in the health field. Some work for decades in the same position, while others eventually take on leadership roles, training, and managing future CHWs. 


Further accreditation or education for a community health worker

While a high school diploma may suffice, a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree can accelerate a CHW career. Community health workers hoping to take on leadership or policy-writing roles might consider getting a Ph.D. in public health, social work, or other related fields. 

Those living in states in which community health work legislation is still coming together might seek out medical training opportunities, such as becoming a Certified Health Education Specialist. Health Educator certifications are offered nationally, rather than state-to-state, and cover many of the areas in which a community health worker might practice.

Because the healthcare field is continually changing, community health workers need to stay up to date on the latest practices and legislation. Continuing Education Units, or CEUs, are often required for certified CHWs and can help a health outreach worker to specialize further. 

It’s an exciting career and one that should only continue to grow. Get involved now, and you’ll have a front-row seat to a burgeoning field—and a hand in building the future. 


(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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