The phrase “we are all health workers” is meant to remind us that good health care requires not only clinicians, but also family caregivers, passionate app developers, and so many others. I’m convinced that the artificial distinction between the “official” health care we receive from professionals and the unofficial care we get from family and community is keeping us from building a more integrated care experience for our patients.

We are all health workers

This phrase is also on a sticker on Jane’s laptop above, as she teaches me about her work at Medic Mobile in their office in Nairobi, Kenya. I’m on their board and this has been my first time seeing first-hand how Community Health Workers use their apps to care for people in the most underserved areas of the world.

For the billion people who will never see a doctor, Community Health Workers (CHWs) bring basic prevention, diagnosis, and treatment door-to-door. While CHWs are mostly thought of as the next best thing to a “real” doctor, I’m beginning to understand they are much more.

In many communities, the CHW is chosen by community elders. She is respected and trusted by her peers as she brings knowledge, immunizations, and medicines from the medical experts who have delegated to her. CHWs are often unpaid volunteers who essentially do this work on weekends after trying to make ends meet during the week. During field work in Kenya this week, we got to ask many of them – some volunteers, some modestly paid – why they do this work. A big “aha” for me was seeing how much pride and meaning they derive from this service.

So we not only have value creation in terms of massively improved health outcomes, but also in a deeper sense of purpose for the CHW. In the U.S. and other developed countries, we typically don’t employ “intermediaries” like CHWs. Instead, we’re working hard to optimize the patient-physician interaction. I think poorer communities without that option can help us consider two big questions:

What is the role of the community member in delivering care within her community, in a way that complements and improves upon care provided by clinicians?

How much additional value can we create by allowing members of the community to care for one another, in terms of the meaning each of us derives from helping others?