Community Health Workers as Influential Health System Actors and not “Just Another Pair Of Hands”

Document Type : Original Article


1 Nossal Institute for Global Health, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia

2 Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, Maharashtra, India

3 State Health Systems Resource Centre, Pune, Maharashtra, India


Over the last 20 years, community health workers (CHWs) have become a mainstay of human resources for health in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). A large body of research chronicles CHWs’ experience of their work. In this study we focus on 2 narratives that stand out in the literature. The first is the idea that social, economic and health system contexts intersect to undermine CHWs’ experience of their work, and that a key factor underpinning this experience is that LMIC health systems tend to view CHWs as just an ‘extra pair of hands’ to be called upon to provide ‘technical fixes.’ In this study we show the dynamic and evolving nature of CHW programmes and CHW identities and the need, therefore, for new understandings.

A qualitative case study was carried out of the Indian CHW program (CHWs are called accredited social health activists: ASHAs). It aimed to answer the research question: How do ASHAs experience being CHWs, and what shapes their experience and performance? In depth interviews were conducted with 32 purposively selected ASHAs and key informants. Analysis was focused on interpreting and on developing analytical accounts of ASHAs’ experiences of being CHWs; it was iterative and occurred throughout the research. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and transcripts were analysed using a framework approach (with Nvivo 11).

CHWs resent being treated as just another pair of hands at the beck and call of formal health workers. The experience of being a CHW is evolving, and many are accumulating substantial social capital over time – emerging as influential social actors in the communities they serve. CHWs are covertly and overtly acting to subvert the structural forces that undermine their performance and work experience.

CHWs have the potential to be influential actors in the communities they serve and in frontline health services. Health systems and health researchers need to be cognizant of and consciously engage with this emerging global social dynamic around CHWs. Such an approach can help guide the development of optimal strategies to support CHWs to fulfil their role in achieving health and social development goals.



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Volume 10, Issue 8
August 2021
Pages 465-474
  • Receive Date: 07 September 2019
  • Revise Date: 12 April 2020
  • Accept Date: 13 April 2020
  • First Publish Date: 01 August 2021