Background: Recent years have seen a re-emergence of community health worker (CHW) interventions, especially in relation to HIV care, and in increasing coverage of child health interventions. Such programmes can be particularly appealing in the face of human resource shortages and fragmented health systems. However, do we know enough about how these interventions function in order to support the investment? While research based on strong quantitative study designs such as randomised controlled trials increasingly document their impact, there has been less empirical analysis of the internal mechanisms through which CHW interventions succeed or fail. Qualitative process evaluations can help fill this gap.
Methods: This qualitative paper reports on the experience of three CHW supervisors who were responsible for supporting infant feeding peer counsellors. The intervention took place in three diverse settings in South Africa. Each setting employed one CHW supervisor, each of whom was individually interviewed for this study. The study forms part of the process evaluation of a large-scale randomized controlled trial of infant feeding peer counselling support.
Results: Our findings highlight the complexities of supervising and supporting CHWs. In order to facilitate effective infant feeding peer counselling, supervisors in this study had to move beyond mere technical management of the intervention to broader people management. While their capacity to achieve this was based on their own prior experience, it was enhanced through being supported themselves. In turn, resource limitations and concerns over safety and being in a rural setting were raised as some of the challenges to supervision. Adding to the complexity was the issue of HIV. Supervisors not only had to support CHWs in their attempts to offer peer counselling to mothers who were potentially HIV positive, but they also had to deal with supporting HIV-positive peer counsellors.
Conclusions: This study highlights the need to pay attention to the experiences of supervisors so as to better understand the components of supervision in the field. Such understanding can enhance future policy making, planning and implementation of peer community health worker programmes.