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Integration of community health workers into health systems in developing countries: Opportunities and challenges

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      Background: Developing countries have the potential to reach vulnerable and underserved populations marginalized by the country’s health care systems by way of community health workers (CHWs). It is imperative that health care systems focus on improving access to quality continuous primary care through the use of CHWs while paying attention to the factors that impact on CHWs and their effectiveness.

      Objective: To explore the possible opportunities and challenges of integrating CHWs into the health care systems of developing countries.

      Methods: Six databases were examined for quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods studies that included the integration of CHWs, their motivation and supervision, and CHW policy making and implementation in developing countries. Thirty-three studies met the inclusion criteria and were double read to extract data relevant to the context of CHW programs. Thematic coding was conducted and evidence on the main categories of contextual factors influencing integration of CHWs into the health system was synthesized.

      Results: CHWs are an effective and appropriate element of a health care team and can assist in addressing health disparities and social determinants of health. Important facilitators of integration of CHWs into health care teams are support from other health workers and inclusion of CHWs in case management meetings. Sustainable integration of CHWs into the health care system requires the formulation and implementation of polices that support their work, as well as financial and nonfinancial incentives, motivation, collaborative and supportive supervision, and a manageable workload.

      Conclusions: For sustainable integration of CHWs into health care systems, high-performing health systems with sound governance, adequate financing, well-organized service delivery, and adequate supplies and equipment are essential. Similarly, competent communities could contribute to better CHW performance through sound governance of community resources, promotion of inclusiveness and cohesion, engagement in participatory decision making, and mobilization of local resources for community welfare.

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      Most cited references 77

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      Achieving child survival goals: potential contribution of community health workers.

      There is renewed interest in the potential contribution of community health workers to child survival. Community health workers can undertake various tasks, including case management of childhood illnesses (eg, pneumonia, malaria, and neonatal sepsis) and delivery of preventive interventions such as immunisation, promotion of healthy behaviour, and mobilisation of communities. Several trials show substantial reductions in child mortality, particularly through case management of ill children by these types of community interventions. However, community health workers are not a panacea for weak health systems and will need focussed tasks, adequate remuneration, training, supervision, and the active involvement of the communities in which they work. The introduction of large-scale programmes for community health workers requires evaluation to document the impact on child survival and cost effectiveness and to elucidate factors associated with success and sustainability.
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        Community health workers and the response to HIV/AIDS in South Africa: tensions and prospects.

        After a decline in enthusiasm for national community health worker (CHW) programmes in the 1980s, these have re-emerged globally, particularly in the context of HIV. This paper examines the case of South Africa, where there has been rapid growth of a range of lay workers (home-based carers, lay counsellors, DOT supporters etc.) principally in response to an expansion in budgets and programmes for HIV, most recently the rollout of antiretroviral therapy (ART). In 2004, the term community health worker was introduced as the umbrella concept for all the community/lay workers in the health sector, and a national CHW Policy Framework was adopted. We summarize the key features of the emerging national CHW programme in South Africa, which include amongst others, their integration into a national public works programme and the use of non-governmental organizations as intermediaries. We then report on experiences in one Province, Free State. Over a period of 2 years (2004--06), we made serial visits on three occasions to the first 16 primary health care facilities in this Province providing comprehensive HIV services, including ART. At each of these visits, we did inventories of CHW numbers and training, and on two occasions conducted facility-based group interviews with CHWs (involving a total of 231 and 182 participants, respectively). We also interviewed clinic nurses tasked with supervising CHWs. From this evaluation we concluded that there is a significant CHW presence in the South African health system. This infrastructure, however, shares many of the managerial challenges (stability, recognition, volunteer vs. worker, relationships with professionals) associated with previous national CHW programmes, and we discuss prospects for sustainability in the light of the new policy context.
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          1 million community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015.


            Author and article information

            1School of Public Health, Capital Medical University, Beijing, China
            2School of Health Sciences, Great Lakes University of Kisumu, Kenya
            3Beijing Municipal Key Laboratory of Clinical Epidemiology, Beijing, China
            4Community Medicine Department, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Dongola, Sudan
            5Systems and Intervention Research Centre for Health, School of Medical Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Perth, WA, Australia
            Author notes
            CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Wei Wang, MD, PhD, FFPH Global Health and Genomics, School of Medical Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup WA 6027, Australia, Tel.: +61-8-63043717, Fax: +61-8-63042626, E-mail:
            Family Medicine and Community Health
            Compuscript (Ireland)
            January 2016
            February 2016
            : 4
            : 1
            : 37-45
            Copyright © 2016 Family Medicine and Community Health

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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