Empowering Community Health Workers to Advance Health Equity

April 23, 2024 | Keon Lewis, Karla Granado, Yoann Sophie Antoine Jean-Felix

Community Health Worker settings continuum graphicThe COVID-19 pandemic exposed the health inequities and deficiencies in our public health infrastructure that leave many communities behind. To close the health equity gap and meet the challenges ahead, public health professionals must institutionalize the role of community health workers (CHWs) within the healthcare system and public health workforce. Doing so will take recognizing the critical impact of CHWs and equipping them with the necessary tools for continued success and advancing health equity.

Recognizing the Impact of Community Health Workers in the Public Health Workforce

Pandemic and Beyond

During the peak of the pandemic, local health departments employed CHWs as contact tracers, health educators, and care navigators for individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. CHWs promoted and increased access to testing, treatment, and vaccination. At a time when there was a sense of mistrust towards government agencies and the COVID-19 vaccine, CHWs also educated their communities.

As the pandemic continues to subside, local health departments must sustain their partnership with CHWs to close the health equity gap and build a relationship with the communities they serve—thereby enhancing trust and a sense of belonging among residents. With proper training and sustained funding, CHWs will be crucial in bridging the gap between government agencies and promoting community engagement on issues other than COVID-19.

Case Study: Advancing Equity Grant

When the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) announced its two-year $2.25 billion Advancing Equity Grant (AA466), the funds addressed COVID-19-related health disparities and advanced health equity. One central component of achieving the established deliverables of the grant was assessing participating agencies' ability to expand their capacity to serve historically marginalized populations. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services was fortunate to receive $39,638,025 in AA466 funding to distribute to 57 participating agencies for joining this worthwhile mission.

As one of the 57 recipients, the Cabarrus Health Alliance (CHA) utilized CHWs as trusted liaisons with lived and learned experiences to advance the organizational strategic plan by addressing the social determinants of health. By adopting a deployment model centered on Public Health 3.0, the CHWs effectively launched a referral program that helped close accessibility gaps by improving communication methods, expanding community partnerships, and leveraging technology. Results from satisfactory surveys and client-reported demographics demonstrated that of the nearly 3,000 community stakeholders who served from 2021 to 2023, 68.4% identified with the organization’s priority population. The outcome was immediate improvements in accessibility gaps for county focal areas such as food insecurity, housing instability, unemployment, healthcare access, and transportation. Recognizing the rapid impact of the referral program, CHA implemented a marketing and outreach strategy designed for public viewing and conference platforms to highlight its critical role in strengthening the public health infrastructure.

Setting Community Health Workers Up for Success

Implementing Sustainable Funding Sources

As evidenced by the case study above, CHWs bring invaluable skill sets and experiences that can help achieve public health goals and advance health equity. However, they are undervalued for their contributions to improving health outcomes.

Research shows that nearly half of health outcomes can be traced back to one’s zip code and social determinants of health. In Nov. 2023, the White House released the first-ever U.S. Playbook to Address Social Determinants of Health, which lays the foundation for agencies and organizations to provide a holistic approach to health by acknowledging and addressing social and economic conditions that affect well-being. CHWs will be the backbone of these efforts, as they bridge healthcare and social care systems by screening for social determinants of health and connecting individuals to social support—making it easier for patients or community members to navigate complex systems.

To continue to support CHWs, there must be broad implementation of sustainable funding sources such as reimbursing CHW services at the Medicaid level. In a survey conducted among employers of CHWs in Texas, only 27% stated that their organization received funding from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, with 25% not receiving any federal funding. Texas is one of many states that will begin to require managed care organizations to reimburse for CHW services. As of Jan. 2024, only 24 states had reimbursement mechanisms for CHW services through managed care organizations, the 1115 demonstration projects, or Medicaid state plan amendments.

Employing the CHW Settings Continuum Framework

The Community Health Worker Core Consensus (C3) Project provides a setting continuum framework that highlights how a CHW might be employed in a community or clinical setting and, regardless, their role is consistent and rooted in community advocacy and support.

Providing CHWs with training tailored to their community and the setting in which they are employed is crucial to their success. CHWs can be integrated at the local health department level, creating a sense of belonging among community members and removing fear of communicating with a government agency.

The C3 Project recommends 10 core skills and competencies, from advocacy to communication, research, and evaluation. While CHWs already have a wealth of knowledge about their communities, their impact strengthens when equipped with the proper training to advocate for their community successfully and support long-lasting changes.


CHWs are vital to the success of public health efforts. They usually have shared lived experiences with the people and communities they serve, which creates a connection essential to advancing equity—as community members rely on individuals, they know they can trust to make informed decisions about their health.

Ultimately, CHWs foster stronger relationships between community members, community organizations, local health departments, and healthcare organizations, which are essential to rebuilding trust that historically harmful and racist practices in the public health and healthcare field destroyed. As such, investing in CHWs as the heart of our public health workforce will help to eliminate inequities in health outcomes.