Implementing without guidelines, learning at the coalface: a case study of health promoters in an era of community health workers in South Africa
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BACKGROUND: Internationally, there has been renewed focus on primary healthcare (PHC). PHC revitalisation is one of the mechanisms to emphasise health promotion and prevention. However, it is not always clear who should lead health promotion activities. In some countries, health promotion practitioners provide health promotion; in others, community health workers (CHWs) are responsible. South Africa, like other countries, has embarked on reforms to strengthen PHC, including a nationwide CHW programme - resulting in an unclear role for pre-existing health promoters. This paper examined the tension between these two cadres in two South African provinces in an era of primary health reform. METHODOLOGY: We used a qualitative case study approach. Participants were recruited from the national, provincial, district and facility levels of the health system. Thirty-seven face-to-face in-depth interviews were conducted with 16 health promotion managers, 12 health promoters and 13 facility managers during a 3-month period (November 2017 to February 2018). Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Both inductive and deductive thematic content analysis approaches were used, supported by MAXQDA software. RESULTS: Two South African policy documents, one on PHC reform and the other on health promotion, were introduced and implemented without clear guidelines on how health promoter job descriptions should be altered in the context of CHWs. The introduction of CHWs triggered anxiety and uncertainty among some health promoters. However, despite considerable role overlap and the absence of formal re-orientation processes to re-align their roles, some health promoters have carved out a role for themselves, supporting CHWs (for example, providing up-to-date health information, jointly discussing how to assist with health problems in the community, providing advice and household-visit support). CONCLUSIONS: This paper adds to recent literature on the current wave of PHC reforms. It describes how health promoters are 'working it out' on the ground, when the policy or process do not provide adequate guidance or structure. Lessons learnt on how these two cadres could work together are important, especially given the shortage of human resources for health in low- and middle-income settings. This is a missed opportunity, researchers and policy-makers need to think more about how to feed experience/tacit knowledge up the system.