Community Health Workers

Community Health Workers

To address cancer disparities in the city of Harrisburg, the Community Sciences and Health Outcomes shared resource of Penn State Cancer Institute established a Community Health Worker program in 2011.


The program is designed to identify and equip community health workers to assist their peers in the following ways:

  • increasing the use of evidence-based cancer screening among women who are of average risk
  • increasing cancer-preventing behaviors among all individuals

What It Does

The Community Health Worker program serves as a bridge between the patient and access to care. These health workers are laypeople who are trusted members of the target community and have a passion for improving the health of their peers. The Cancer Institute provides training, both initially (16 hours) and ongoing (four hours per quarter) to each worker.


The program’s initial focus was on breast cancer screening, but it is expanding to include cervical and colorectal cancer screening, as well as preventive behaviors, such as physical activity and balanced nutrition.

With a staff of 15 community health workers, most of whom have been with the program since its inception, this program is expanding to rural and other medically underserved communities in Pennsylvania. In addition, the program now works inside Penn State clinics, accepting direct referrals from physicians and nurse practitioners.


Treatment of breast cancer at an early stage reduces the risk of death from breast cancer. However, the percentage of women with breast cancer that is detected at an early stage is relatively low among medically underserved populations, such as those who are of a racial/ethnic minority or who reside in a rural community.

To increase the likelihood that cancer is detected at an early stage, women at average risk are recommended to have regular clinical breast exams and mammography. However, access to mammography, especially newer digital mammography, is not equivalent for all women because of patient or system barriers, such as financial constraints, fear or unavailability of services.

To overcome these barriers, the Community Guide for Preventive Services found evidence in the scientific literature to recommend one-on-one education and group education as methods to overcome these barriers. Specifically, the Community Guide recommends community health workers (also known as lay health advisors) as a mode for delivery of one-on-one or group education.

Importantly, the recommendation for workers to overcome these barriers is not limited to screening for breast cancer, but also includes screening for other cancers and reducing cancer risk behaviors.

Contact Us

For details on the Community Health Worker program, contact: