Should a premed become a community health worker to get clinical experience?

Are you a pre-med or pre-PA student looking for clinical experience? Are you a public health student looking to work directly with patients? Then you should take a closer look at the role of community health worker. 

In team based health care this is an entry level clinical role that is becoming more popular in many different settings. And guess what? It does not require any certification or training to get started. 

Community Health Workers (CHWs) are public health professionals who serve as a bridge between healthcare providers and the community they serve. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Health Education: Providing health education to community members on topics such as nutrition, disease prevention, maternal and child health, and chronic disease management.
  • Support and Advocacy: Offering support and advocacy to individuals and families, helping them access healthcare services and navigate the healthcare system.
  • Needs Assessment: Both on the individual and community level they conduct community health assessments to identify health disparities, social determinants of health, and areas where intervention is needed.
  • Resource Referral: Connecting individuals to appropriate social services, healthcare providers, and community resources.
  • Cultural Competence: Ensuring that healthcare information and services are culturally and linguistically appropriate for the community they serve.
  • Data Collection: Collecting and maintaining data to monitor community health outcomes and to evaluate the effectiveness of health interventions.

The best part of being a community health worker is how well you get to know your community and its members. CHWs work with diverse populations, in particular, underserved and at-risk communities. These populations may include low-income families, immigrants, refugees, people with chronic conditions, and individuals with limited access to healthcare or those at high risk of high healthcare utilization. 

CHWs can be employed in a variety of settings, including:

  • Nonprofit Organizations: Many CHWs work for nonprofit organizations that focus on community health, public health, or social services.
  • Government Agencies: Some CHWs are employed by local or state health departments to implement public health programs.
  • Hospitals and Clinics:  In healthcare settings, CHWs may assist with patient education and care coordination.
  • Community-Based Organizations:These can include neighborhood centers, schools, and community health centers.

The salary for Community Health Workers varies depending on location, experience, and employer. In the United States, CHWs typically earn an hourly wage that can range from $15 to $25 per hour. This can vary widely, and some CHWs may work on a salaried basis, especially in management or supervisory roles.

While there is no universal national certification requirement for CHWs in the United States, and certification is not typically required for the job, there are various training and certification programs available if you want to get one.

These include:

Certified Community Health Worker (CCHW): Some states have established certification programs, like the Certified Community Health Worker, to set standards for CHW practice. Requirements for certification can vary by state.

Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES): CHWs may pursue the CHES credential, which is a broader certification in health education that aligns well with CHW roles.

Community Health Worker Training Programs: Many colleges, universities, and community colleges offer training programs that can provide a foundation of knowledge for CHW roles.

Several transferable experiences can prepare you for a career as a CHW, including:

  • Volunteer Work: Volunteering in community organizations, clinics, or social service agencies can give you firsthand experience in working with underserved populations.
  • Social Work or Psychology Courses: Classes in social work or psychology can provide insights into behavior change, counseling, and understanding the needs of vulnerable populations. Any insight you have into the social determinants of health is valuable. 
  • Public Health Courses: Courses in public health or health education can help you gain a deeper understanding of health promotion and disease prevention strategies.
  • Communication and Interpersonal Skills:Developing strong communication, empathy, and active listening skills is crucial for working effectively with individuals and communities. Working as a resident assistant, for a crisis line, tutoring/teaching are all great experiences that would give you great skills for this job. 
  • Cultural Competence: Experience in diverse cultural settings and an understanding of cultural sensitivity are essential for building trust in the communities you serve.
  • Information management: Any job where you were responsible for identifying or collating resources and using data to identify needs – research, leadership – would be an important skill set for this role. 

Working as a CHW can help develop several competencies as a health educator, learning to provide accurate and accessible health education to individuals and communities.Advocacy skills to help individuals navigate healthcare systems and access necessary services. Strong communication and interpersonal skills for effective community outreach.The ability to assess community health needs and disparities, understand the many social determinants of health and develop interventions accordingly. Resource navigation skills in connecting individuals to appropriate healthcare services and social resources. Understanding and respecting diverse cultures and tailoring health interventions accordingly. Competence in collecting and reporting health data to measure the impact of interventions.

Becoming a CHW offers a rewarding opportunity that bridges public health, community engagement, and advocacy to improve the health and well-being of underserved populations. The role is essential in addressing health disparities and promoting overall community health which are an increasingly important component of providing care as a future physician or physician assistant (associate). 

The only caveat, as always, for those applying to PA school is to check with your programs to see if they would consider this Patient Care Experience or Healthcare Experience, because it may not count toward your required Patient Care hours. 

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