Background: Supportive supervision is considered critical to community health worker programme performance, but there is relatively little understanding of how it can be sustainably done at scale. Supportive supervision is a holistic concept that encompasses three key functions: management (ensuring performance), education (promoting development) and support (responding to needs and problems). Drawing on the experiences of the ward-based outreach team (WBOT) strategy, South Africa's national community health worker (CHW) programme, this paper explores and describes approaches to supportive supervision in policy and programme guidelines and how these are implemented in supervision practices in the North West Province, an early adopter of the WBOT strategy. Outreach teams typically consist of six CHWs plus a nurse outreach team leader (OTL).
Methods: A qualitative, descriptive study that combined a document review of national policy and guidelines with key informant interviews in two districts of the North West Province was conducted. An overall WBOT policy statement and four guidelines on aspects of the strategy, spanning the period 2011-2017, were reviewed for statements on the three core facets of supervision outlined above. Eight focus group discussions, involving facility managers, team leaders and community health workers (total 40 respondents), purposively selected from four sub-districts in two districts, assessed local-level supervision practices. Alignment across policy and guidance documents and between policy/guidance and practice was examined.
Findings: While all the official policy documents and guidelines reviewed acknowledged the need for supervision and support, these elements were inadequately developed and poorly aligned, both in terms of scope and in providing firm guidance on the supervision of WBOTs. The practices of supervision entailed a variety of reporting lines, while development and support processes were informal and often lacking, and teams poorly resourced. There was internal cohesion and support within teams amongst CHWs and between CHWs and OTLs. However, primary health care clinic managers, who were supposed to supervise the WBOTs, struggled to fulfil this role amidst the high workloads in facilities, and relationships between WBOTs and facility staff often remained strained.
Conclusion: This study identified weaknesses in both the design and implementation of the supervision system of WBOTs. The lack of explicit, coherent and holistic guidance in policy and the failure to address constraints to supervision at local level undermine the performance and sustainability of the WBOT strategy in South Africa.
Keywords: Community health workers; Document review; Supervision; Support; Ward-based outreach team.