Integration of national community-based health worker programmes in health systems : Lessons learned from Zambia and other low and middle income countries

Abstract: Background: To address the huge human resources for health (HRH) crisis that Zambia and other low and middle income countries (LMICs) are experiencing, most LMICs have engaged the services of small scale community-based health worker (CBHW) programmes. However, several challenges affect the CBHWs’ ability to deliver services. Integration of national CBHW programmes into health systems is an emerging innovative strategy for addressing the challenges. Integration is important because it facilitates recognition of CBHWs in the national primary health care system. However, the integration process has not been optimal, and a more comprehensive understanding of the factors that shape the integration process is lacking. This study aimed at addressing this gap by analysing the integration process of national CBHW programmes in health systems in LMICs, with a special emphasis on Zambia.Methodology: This was a qualitative study that used case study and systematic review study designs. The case study focused on Zambia and analysed the integration processes of Community Health Assistants (CHAs) into the health system at district level (Papers I-III). Data collected using key informant interviews, participant observation, in-depth interviews and focus group discussions were analysed using thematic analysis. The systematic review analysed, using thematic and pathways analysis, the integration process of national CBHWs into health systems in LMICs (Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Pakistan)-(Paper IV). The framework on the integration of health innovations into health systems guided the overall analysis.Results: Factors that facilitated the integration of CHAs into the health system in Zambia included the HRH crisis which triggered the willingness by the Ministry of Health to develop and support implementation of the integration strategy-the CHA strategy. In addition, the attributes of the CHA strategy, such as the perceived competence of CHAs compared to other CBHWs, enhanced the community’s confidence in the CHA services. Involvement of the community in selecting CHAs also increased the community’s sense of programme ownership. However, health system characteristics such as limited support by some support staff, supply shortages as well as limited integration of CHAs into the district governance system affected CHAs’ ability to deliver services. In other LMICs, as in Zambia, the HRH problems necessitated the development of integration strategies. In addition, the perceived relative advantage of national CBHWs with regard to delivering health services compared to the other CBHWs also facilitated the integration process. Furthermore, the involvement of community members and some politicians in programme processes enhanced the perceived legitimacy, credibility and relevance of programmes in other LMICs. Finally, the integration process within the existing health systems enhanced programme compatibility with health system elements such as financing. However, a rapid scale-up process, resistance from other health workers, ineffective incentive structures, and discrimination of CBHWs based on social, gender and economic status inhibited the integration process of national CBHWs into the health systems.Conclusion: Strengthening the integration process requires fully integrating the programme into the district health governance system; being aware of the factors that can influence the integration process such as incentives, supplies and communication systems; clear definition of tasks and work relationships; and adopting a stepwise approach to integration process.