Background: Community health worker (CHW) programs are believed to be poorly coordinated, poorly integrated into national health systems, and lacking long-term support. Duplication of services, fragmentation, and resource limitations may have impeded the potential impact of CHWs for achieving HIV goals. This study assesses mediators of a more harmonized approach to implementing large-scale CHW programs for HIV in the context of complex health systems and multiple donors.
Methods and findings: We undertook four country case studies in Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland between August 2015 and May 2016. We conducted 60 semistructured interviews with donors, government officials, and expert observers involved in CHW programs delivering HIV services. Interviews were triangulated with published literature, country reports, national health plans, and policies. Data were analyzed based on 3 priority areas of harmonization (coordination, integration, and sustainability) and 5 components of a conceptual framework (the health issue, intervention, stakeholders, health system, and context) to assess facilitators and barriers to harmonization of CHW programs. CHWs supporting HIV programs were found to be highly fragmented and poorly integrated into national health systems. Stakeholders generally supported increasing harmonization, although they recognized several challenges and disadvantages to harmonization. Key facilitators to harmonization included (i) a large existing national CHW program and recognition of nongovernmental CHW programs, (ii) use of common incentives and training processes for CHWs, (iii) existence of an organizational structure dedicated to community health initiatives, and (iv) involvement of community leaders in decision-making. Key barriers included a wide range of stakeholders and lack of ownership and accountability of non-governmental CHW programs. Limitations of our study include subjectively selected case studies, our focus on decision-makers, and limited generalizability beyond the countries analyzed.
Conclusion: CHW programs for HIV in Southern Africa are fragmented, poorly integrated, and lack long-term support. We provide 5 policy recommendations to harmonize CHW programs in order to strengthen and sustain the role of CHWs in HIV service delivery.