Everyone’s job is different nowadays. This means community health workers need an updated list of job skills. Everything you thought you knew about jobs for any kind of health worker is up for re-analyzing. That includes how people learn (remotely) to what they learn (cultural competency) and where they use those skills (phone vs. someone’s kitchen).
The future of healthcare focused on community members is still changing. How this workforce will look in years to come is still unclear. What is clear is that the skills CHWs, promotores, case managers, and others need to evolve too.
What those jobs look like already demands a new and improved batch of competencies that have been adapted to this world’s structure. These new skills will make it easier for community-focused healthcare to meet virtually. They will incorporate ways of managing stress and sharing those techniques with clients. They’ll include more ways to stretch care to people who have worse health outcomes than the people around them.
Whatever the new “normal” will be, here’s what’s clear about the new era of being a CHW.
New Job Skills for CHWs
- Remote learning skills
- System navigation and care coordination
- Cultural competency
- Chronic illness or health-specific focus
- Organizational skills
Remote Learning Skills
“Remote” is a term that has new meaning for everyone. Now, it’s the way we define being together and apart at the same time.
The definition of being together remotely now includes learning together online. This is a given for anyone who wants to enter the CHW workforce and needs to build up core skills or for managers who need for their staff to adapt. Employees have a host of options for CHW core competencies that they can pick up from home or in their own time at work.
Learning remotely includes a variety of sub-skills that make it easier to succeed. These skills are also fundamental to a career in public health and working with clients.
- Effective listening
- Communication skills
- Critical thinking
System Navigation and Care Coordination
CHWs need to double-down on learning how develop and improve care coordination and system navigation skills to support clients in complex health environments.
Care coordination is an effective and significant part of high-quality and safe healthcare delivery. It is a critical skill that allows agencies to combine and share information among teams, organizations, and facilities whose services your client needs. This skill, paired with system navigation, is essential to coordinate care among many providers and agencies. It’s also a natural partner with building outreach skills.
These days, more clients are likely to fall into the definition of having complex health conditions. Agencies need to target clients and patients who are at the highest risk of serious illness and mortality if they get COVID-19. Identifying which clients have chronic illnesses or who are older is a care coordination activity that’s vital for CHWs.
Understanding the ways people interact with others with respect, empathy and curiosity has always been a cornerstone of what a CHW does. The last two years have revealed to everyone across the world the concept of cross-cultural competency and how that can affect a person’s wellbeing.
Training in cultural competency (for CHWs or any other member of a healthcare team) includes information on the various cultural groups learners may encounter in their work and how to recognize and demonstrate understanding of cultural differences. Training should introduce CLAS standards and provide practical tips on communication techniques, recognizing and working against stereotypes, and building trust among all people.
Here are key objectives for cultural competency training:
- Understand the role culture plays in a person’s health, including behaviors, language, customs, beliefs, and perspectives
- Learn culturally appropriate and respectful ways of communicating, including effective listening
- Use empathy to connect with people who come from various backgrounds
- Deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients to avoid health disparities
- Build relationships with partners and colleagues to deliver culturally and linguistically appropriate services
- Increase such skills as emotional intelligence and critical thinking
Chronic Illness or Health-Specific Focus
Knowing the basics is just a beginning for CHWs. Once they have foundational training, they should move on to a specialization in a chronic illness or health-specific focus. People who utilize ERs the most often frequently have chronic illnesses, such as asthma or high blood pressure (hypertension).
Including training in chronic disease or other health area, such as oral health, can have a huge impact.
For example, a CHW’s impact on women with breast or cervical cancer or at high risk is broad. CHWs have a knack for making paths through hard-to-reach areas and populations. They’re powerful allies in the battle against breast cancer, especially in underserved communities, where they live, work, or understand deeply.
They can …
- connect people directly with providers for treatment or screening,
- give clients and patients resources about disease management,
- bust myths about breast cancer (no, mammograms don’t cause cancer) and provide other education about lowering risk,
- advise on health insurance and financial assistance, and
- be there just to listen and provide social support.
Organizational skills are always important for the sometimes chaotic job of CHW. But they’re especially important now when CHWs are tasked with building up all the skills previously listed. Being able to prioritize, manage time, work well with a multidisciplinary team, and work with documentation systems are necessary.
When CHWs are organized, they can do their job in a timely, effective, and culturally competent manner.
One important sub-skill is establishing boundaries with clients and coworkers now that so many people are working from home. Some tips for this:
- Create a work-only zone. This could be a home office, a table that’s folded and put away at the end of the day, or another area of the house that a staffer can leave when work is over.
- Take control of a work schedule. This helps reinforce the work-only zone. This also means creating a schedule that allows for meetings with a multidisciplinary team, client follow-ups, and best working times.
- Improve communication skills. Communicating effectively with teammates and staff will make remote working go that much more smoothly.
Giving priority to self-care is now more important than ever—for managers, CHWs and clients.
Managers and supervisors need to prioritize their own self-care so they can be the reliable leaders their staff need. CHWs need to set limits and find ways to release so they don’t face burnout. Clients likely have multiple stressors that can combine to make all their illnesses worse and lower their immune systems.
Relaxation and mindfulness are skills that can help you in your personal and professional life—especially now when everything feels uncertain. Mindfulness practices can help people manage stress, deal with serious illness, and reduce anxiety and depression, according to the NIH. These are helpful skills to pass on to clients, employees, and the people around you.
Nearly everyone is feeling depression, anxiety, and stress right now, so it helps you and anyone you work with if you can pick up management skills. Start by recognizing the symptoms of depression from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Then what to do if you see them in yourself or in another. This guide will help you understand when it’s time to make a behavioral health referral.
Supervisors and program managers supporting a community health team with limited resources can easily feel overwhelmed. You have to think about self-care strategies to share, how to help them control stress, and spot signs of burnout and compassion fatigue.
Learning is a continuum for CHWs and supervisors, and building these new skills are ongoing, even when the pandemic is over. Keep these skills sharp, and you’ll have happier staff who can improve health outcomes now and on into the future.