Community health workers (CHWs) are increasingly essential amidst the pandemic, economic struggles, housing market challenges, and more. The Minnesota Community Health Worker Alliance defines CHWs as “trusted, knowledgeable frontline health personnel who typically come from the communities they serve.”
Additionally, the American Public Health Association explains that CHWs:
- Build individual and community capacity.
- Increase health knowledge and self-sufficiency through various activities.
- Conduct outreach and community education.
- Provide informal counseling, social support, and advocacy.
Interestingly, the CHW definition and responsibilities are similar to another profession: social work. The National Association of Social Workers explains that social work aims to “enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics outlines the following responsibilities for social workers:
- Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals and help them adjust to challenges like illness, divorce, or unemployment.
- Research, refer, and advocate for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and healthcare, to assist and improve a client’s well-being.
- Respond to child abuse and mental health emergencies and provide psychotherapy services.
- Monitor clients’ situations and follow up to ensure they have improved while maintaining case files and records.
Community health and social work share many responsibilities, goals, and best practices. CHWs and social workers are responsible for patient advocacy, referrals, and health promotion. It can be challenging to understand the differences between CHWs and social workers, but the differences are significant because they impact their scopes, career objectives, and more.
4 Key Professional Differences Between CHWs and Social Workers
CHWs need a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. No college education is required, although more CHWs are entering the field with associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees. Social workers must complete at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, although most receive a master’s in social work.
CHW training requirements vary by state, but many states now require CHWs to complete formal training and earn a certificate. On the other hand, social workers must complete clinical, community-based practicums overseen by licensed social workers.
CHWs and social workers have various career titles, many of them shared. However, because social workers have advanced degrees, they have greater earning and career potential. For example, they may become managers or directors of social service organizations or healthcare foundations.
CHWs and social workers provide counseling services, including motivational interviewing, for their clients. However, because of their advanced education, social workers may work as therapists or mental health counselors. Therefore, they can provide higher levels of psychological counseling than CHWs.
Improved Wellness: Complementary Roles for CHWs and Social Workers
Despite their similarities and differences, each profession provides unique insights and opportunities while working toward the common goal of helping the underserved. The community health and social work fields are at their best when they complement one another, which we explore below.
CHWs provide boots on the ground.
Social workers are often responsible for developing and overseeing community programs. However, because they also have many cases to manage, social workers may need more time and resources to deploy services, which is where CHWs step in. CHWs are boots on the ground, meaning they are physically out in the community. As a result, they can provide more direct, client-centered care. For example, they may deliver the food, toiletries, and health supplies that social workers arrange in their programs.
Social work provides a path.
Because of differences in education levels and training, social workers often fill manager or supervisor roles in healthcare settings and community health organizations, whereas CHWs hold entry-level positions. That distinction means that social workers can provide guidance, input, and training for their CHW team. It also means that CHWs interested in advancing can easily transition into social work! Of course, CHWs need to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and receive the appropriate license to become social workers. But the CHW profession provides a clear and fitting entry point.
If you or your organization are interested in training your employees as CHWs or adding CHWs to your team, please contact the experts at Everyday Life Consulting.