Session 1 Overview: Introduction to Community Health Workers (CHWs)

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Collage of photos showing healthcare worker with patients

The objectives for this session include:

  • Explain seven reasons for current interest in CHWs
  • Name four sources of official definitions of CHW
  • Describe common elements of most CHW definitions
  • Describe what is distinctive about CHWs
  • List five common CHW roles and functions
  • Describe distinctions between CHWs and related occupations
  • Describe employment settings in which CHWs practice
  • Discuss management and supervisory challenges



This session describes the unique characteristics that distinguish CHWs from workers in related occupations. These characteristics are at the root of the benefits of employing CHWs. The distinction between CHWs and other workers can be difficult for many stakeholders to understand. Many people in health care administration tend to sort occupations into two general categories: clinical and administrative. As you will see, CHWs fit into neither. Their unique role presents challenges in communicating with stakeholders about CHWs and in designing coherent public policy.

In this session, we will explore the reasons behind the current growth in interest in CHWs and highlight the common elements in four official definitions of CHWs. We will look at what is distinctive about CHWs and at the range of roles and functions they perform. Limited understanding of these roles and functions among stakeholders is a major contributor to the inertia that has impeded policy change.

We will also look at the basic distinctions between CHWs and some related occupations; later in the series, we’ll explore these distinctions in terms of boundaries and scope of practice. Finally, we will look at models of care; the types of organizations in which CHWs practice; and the management and supervisory challenges involved in employing CHWs.

We should note that because the vast majority of CHWs are women—although there are also many male CHWs—we will refer to CHWs using female pronouns.