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What are community health programs and why are they important?

At a glance

  • Community health is a subspecialty of public health with programs that focus on access, education and other nonclinical public health initiatives.
  • Community health can look a number of ways, such as facilitating programs that get healthy food to families that need it or mental health initiatives for at-risk populations.
  • Leadership roles in community health include public health administrator, public health program manager, health education specialist, public health officer and community health program coordinator.
  • University of Phoenix can help you prepare for a leadership role within public health. Discover what you can learn in the Master of Public Health program.

Understanding community health

As the COVID-19 pandemic proved, public health plays a major role in daily life — even if we’re not always directly aware of it. Public health, however, predates the pandemic by centuries, and it and its subcategories, which include community health, play an important role in society.

Public health seeks to promote wellness and protect the public — which may include the population of a community, city, state or country — from diseases and illnesses. Immunization policies, responses to pandemics and health education campaigns all fall within the public health realm.

Research, planning, statistical modeling and legislation are all aspects of public health, but there are also hands-on roles that involve working directly with people. One of the biggest needs in this field is among underserved populations that often lack access to healthcare resources. This is where community health programs come into play.

Earn your Master of Public Health degree in as little as 19 months
at University of Phoenix.

What is community health?

Community health is a subspecialty of public health that focuses on the nonclinical aspects of healthcare in a community. Public health is often concerned with big-picture issues, such as creating a pandemic response or finding ways to reduce the rate of infections.

Meanwhile, community health pursues healthcare and wellness improvements at the local level. In addition to trying to improve medical access, services and health education, especially in underserved populations, community health identifies and tries to address socioeconomic, cultural and demographic factors that affect healthcare and wellness.

Community health relies on face-to-face interactions with community members for information gathering, education, outreach and medical services. Often these interactions take place in a community health center.

What is a community health center?

Community health centers provide essential medical services, education and outreach. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, federally funded community health locations served nearly 26 million people in 2016. (This doesn’t count other health centers funded locally.) Of the people served, 70% were below the federal poverty level, meaning community health centers offer services to which many people would not otherwise have access.

In addition to providing quality healthcare services, important goals of community health centers include offering health education, wellness training and information.

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Careers that involve helping people

What is a community health worker?

In order for community health to improve, professionals must tackle problems head-on. These individuals are known as community health workers.

Community health workers are frontline professionals who seek to improve healthcare services for residents in a specific area or a target group. They may work with providers to improve services, access to healthcare and messaging about subjects like wellness and disease prevention.

Some roles focus on identifying issues that prevent access to medical care or pinpointing causes of specific diseases within a community.

Community health workers can find employment in a variety of urban and rural settings where access to traditional private or public healthcare facilities is limited.

In these situations, professionals interact with the community to provide healthcare and strategize how to improve access. In addition to working with community members, community health workers may also advise providers and policymakers on how to improve services and outcomes for community members.

To take a leadership position in community health, you may need a master’s degree in public health. Leadership roles include the following:

  • Public health administrator
  • Public health program manager
  • Health education specialist
  • Public health officer
  • Community health program coordinator

Any workers who provide clinical services, such as a public health nurse, need a nursing or medical degree and license from the state in which they operate. Other positions typically require a college degree in a subject like public health, social work or a related field.

"Community health is essential because it addresses the needs of groups that lack access to the healthcare system."

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What is an MPH (Master of Public Health)?

Why is community health important?

Community health is essential because it addresses the needs of groups that lack access to the healthcare system and suffer from increased instances of medical problems as a result.

These issues can arise due to gender, race, age, economic class, location and cultural factors. The role of community health workers is to understand these complex and interwoven factors to develop strategies that overcome barriers and improve outcomes.  

Here are some ways that community health efforts improve access and outcomes for underserved populations:

  • Promote preventive medicine and medical checkups to reduce the need for emergency services
  • Increase access to immunizations and medications
  • Help families understand their risk for certain diseases and offer solutions to mitigate those risks
  • Educate the population about wellness steps, such as regular fitness and a healthy diet
  • Work with providers to offer health screens and checkups that meet the population’s needs

Community health efforts can also bring about better outcomes because workers are embedded in the community and can get feedback to see if the programs are effective.

Examples of community health programs

So, what does community health look like in practice? Here are some examples of how community health programs can bring about positive change within a population.

  • Healthy eating: Some urban areas, such as neighborhoods within southern Los Angeles, are food deserts — places where healthy food is hard to come by. A student-run program called South Los Angeles Corner-Store Conversions sought to get owners of local markets to showcase healthy snacks like fruits instead of chips and candy.
  • Community education programs: These efforts seek to improve outcomes for patients by educating them on prevention and disease management. In the River Region of Alabama, for example, a community health group successfully decreased emergency room visits for people with diabetes by more than 50% by offering a program showing them how to set wellness goals and manage their condition at home.
  • Healthcare access: Some demographic groups fall behind on childhood immunizations because of a lack of information and access. Health workers may use community-based interventions to increase vaccination rates. Efforts can include holding immunization clinics in convenient community locations or offering home visits from public health nurses to provide and document vaccinations.
  • Mental health: Some community programs seek to address the mental health needs of specific communities. For example, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Washington offers mental health services for local agricultural laborers. The clinics, which are located near the target population, are open evenings and weekends and staffed with workers who can meet the needs of the primarily Spanish-speaking clientele.

The types of programs can vary depending on the needs of a community.

How to work in community health

Community health can be a demanding field in which to work, but it can also be rewarding. And it’s necessary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of community health workers will grow by 16% from 2021 to 2031. That is more than three times the average growth for all professions.

People interested in community health work can start on their career path by pursuing a degree. According to BLS, the minimum qualification for many public health, health education and community health jobs is a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, though some outreach workers can start their careers with a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Community health workers can also get experience by volunteering or finding internships, which can help them develop skills necessary for the face-to-face aspects of community health.

Public health at University of Phoenix

If a leadership role in the public health space or working with a community health program interests you, University of Phoenix prepares students for a variety of roles through its Master of Public Health with a concentration in Community Health Leadership. Through this degree you develop skills to lead programs and initiatives that positively affect people’s health and reduce community health disparities. To begin this program, you need either a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field or a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of full-time work experience in a public health-related role.


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