How to Become a Community Health Professional

Community Health Career Overview

A career as a community health worker hits the sweet spot between having a visibly beneficial macro-impact on the community that simultaneously involves one-on-one personable interaction with the people you’re affecting.

This is a key role in the wider field of public health. Community health workers assist individuals and the larger community in adopting healthy behavior. This can include:

  • Advocating for community health and individual needs
  • Providing informal counseling and social support information
  • Researching, planning, and implementing community programs that promote and improve overall health
  • Collecting data to help determine community health needs
  • Serving as a liaison for organizations that support specific areas of public health
  • Providing basic health services like blood pressure screenings and first aid
  • Conducting outreach for health organizations and medical personnel

Most community health professionals work in the following types of environments:

  • With local government agencies like public health departments
  • With organizations that provide community health services for individuals and families
  • In outpatient care centers
  • In hospitals, clinics, and physician offices
  • With health insurance companies
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You’ll need at minimum a high school diploma or GED if you want to work as a community health professional. In most cases it’s possible to learn what you need to know with on-the-job training.

Licensing and Certification

Many states have a licensing or certification process to become a community health professional. This is usually optional but can be advantageous. For example, if you’re state-certified/licensed it often means your employer has access to additional state funding, and certification/licensure may be required to work for public organizations like state or local health departments.

Employers may prefer or require you to become state-certified/licensed but will often offer the provision that you can be hired on the condition that you earn this within a certain time frame, such as six months after hire.

For those states that do offer community health worker certification or licensure, the process for earning this is often completed through the state’s health department and typically involves:

  • Completing a short training program ranging from days to a few weeks
  • Completing supervised field experience or volunteer work ranging from a few days to a few weeks
  • Passing an exam
  • Passing a background check

The following states have some type of licensing or certification process for community health workers, or are working to establish one:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Washington

Check with your state’s public health department to find out what’s specifically involved where you live.

Education

To be competitive, and to fulfill some states’ licensure/certification procedures, it can help to have a relevant degree to point to on your résumé. Being competent as a community health worker can involve several different skill sets, from knowing how to collect and organize data to being able to integrate well with people from different cultures or with people experiencing different types of medical, mental, or substance-abuse challenges.

This range of skills means there are a range of majors you can study and courses you can take that can give you a leg up when applying for a job, including

  • Public health
  • Social work
  • Statistics
  • Nursing
  • Cultural studies
  • Health and wellness
  • Ethics
  • Foreign languages

As you climb the career ladder it can be beneficial to combine work experience with a master’s-level of education in relevant fields, depending on your area of focus in community health. The more senior positions in community health typically involve more responsibilities, leadership roles, training roles, as well as more benefits and a higher salary.

Consider the following information sourced from actual community health worker job ads. This will give you some sense of what kind of education is required for different positions:

  • With the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services in Maryland – Duties include performing public health community outreach to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases like Covid-19. Qualification requirements include at least a high school diploma and one year of relevant experience, with preference given to those who can also speak Spanish.
  • At a center for mental health and intellectual disabilities in Texas – Duties include helping patients and their caregivers access community services and adopt healthy behaviors. Preferred candidates have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, social work, psychology, counseling, special education, or a related area of study.
  • With a national health insurance company at a local office in South Carolina – Duties include assessing clients’ scopes of needs and providing education about chronic health conditions, social support, and behavioral care. Preferred candidates have a bachelor’s degree.

Resources

In addition to many state community health worker organizations, you can find additional information about careers, professional development, and networking opportunities with the following national organizations: