Integrating Community Health Workers into Care Teams

Community health workers who help patients navigate the health care system and work to address their social and economic needs have rarely been fully integrated into care teams. This issue reports on health care organizations that have integrated community health workers into multidisciplinary teams, which appears to be a factor in their success. 

Community health workers—the frontline lay workers who serve as a bridge between clinicians and their patients—have been around for several decades in the U.S., but they have rarely been fully integrated into care teams for a variety of practical and cultural reasons. This is in spite of a growing body of evidence that community health workers (CHWs) in the U.S. and overseas can help the sickest and neediest patients improve their health and avoid costly emergency department and hospital visits.

Many CHWs come from the communities they serve, and often speak the same language—literally or figuratively—as the patients living there. They call upon that shared experience to build relationships with patients, and in turn use their knowledge of patients’ neighborhoods and cultures to help providers fine-tune their approaches to the patients they serve. In this way, they differ from social workers, nurse case managers, or others tasked with helping people with complex needs.

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