They deliver life-saving services daily that would otherwise be unavailable to mothers, newborns and home-bound patients in areas where distance, infrastructure and staffing shortages challenge access to health care. They deliver information, support, screening, and treatment. By preventing catastrophic illnesses, their work cuts costs for overburdened clinics, strengthen workforces, and controls public health threats. The work they do now, on a larger scale, is irreplaceable and essential to achieving universal health care, a new report says. Yet without a formal and recognized role, and frequently considered volunteers, community health workers, scattered across the countries where they are needed most, go unpaid, inconsistently trained, and unintegrated into national or donor health responses.
The report, Strengthening Primary Health Care through Community Health Workers: Investment Case and Financing, outlines the benefits of building and sustaining workforces of these frontline providers, and lays out ways that governments, donors, and international agencies can make that happen.
The benefits of an investment in community health workers across sub-Saharan Africa, according to authors who include Liberia and Ethiopia ministers of health, as well as physicians and program leaders from the World Bank, Partners in Health, Unicef, would include societal benefits from an increased incomes and empowered and largely female workforces, as well as millions more lives saved yearly.
The report bolsters its case for the benefits of a community health workforce by outlining how they could be achieved, arguing that:
- Governments could include community health workers in their national health planning and actively seek funding, including through grants, loans, and private sector financing to build community health workforces;
- Donors could help that to happen by promoting the use of funds going to specific disease responses to plans integrating community health workers into responses.
- The World Bank (the report says “the international financing community”) could help countries start programs to integrate community health workforces into health plans through health bonds;
- And global health organizations could help countries seek financing and plan its use.
The report also includes case studies from Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and other countries that have succeeded in bringing health care closer to home.