Integrating a nationally scaled workforce of community health workers in primary care
Increasing workload, a reduced percentage of the budget and workforce retention and recruitment problems challenge the capacity of available general practitioners in the UK NHS. Consequently, patients’ ability to obtain general practitioner appointments has declined. Political pressure to improve access has been accompanied by promises of increased general practitioner numbers, but with a reported fall in 2016–2017,5 it remains unclear how this will be achieved. Meanwhile, financial constraints have also led to the loss of some community-based health services, such as district nursing and fragmentation of others.
In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we examined whether the systematic deployment of community health workers in the NHS could help address current problems of fragmentation and inefficiency, while improving clinical outcomes through improved uptake of appropriate services.
Conservative modelling suggested that 110,585 community health workers would be needed to cover the general practice registered population in England, costing £2.22bn annually. Assuming community health workers could engage with and successfully refer 20% of eligible unscreened or unimmunised individuals, an additional 753,592 cervical cancer screenings, 365,166 breast cancer screenings and 482,924 bowel cancer screenings could be expected within respective review periods. A total of 16,398 additional children annually could receive their MMR1 at 12 months and 24,716 their MMR2 at five years of age. Community health workerss would also provide home-based health promotion and lifestyle support to patients with chronic disease.
We concluded that the integration of community health workers at scale in NHS primary care could represent a timely and relatively rapidly implemented approach to the workload crisis. Chronic disease management, cancer screening and MMR immunisation uptake provide examples of potential benefits; there is a need for formal piloting to establish the impact of community health workers in NHS primary care.