Community Health Work

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Community Health Work involves much interdisciplinary collaboration. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), often thought of as the mother of modern nursing, was a true community health worker. She received her training from Theodor Fliedner at Kaiserwerth in Germany and he received his nursing ideas from early Mennonite deaconesses of Holland as well as from the work of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker social worker. Florence Nightingale was not a nurse who just cared for the ill or carried out treatments to cure. She did the interdisciplinary work of community health, both in the hospital and community setting. She was a social worker, caring for patients, spouses, and families; an environmentalist, with her fresh-air policies; a nutritionist, developing central kitchens in hospitals; a statistician, with her data analysis; and a nurse and teacher. These and more are the components of community health work.

Community health work is more than just providing health care in the community setting. Community health work is to improve the health of all in the community through prevention of illness and health promotion, with a focus on the physical, biological, social, psychological, and environmental health of a population group. Primary health care, or essential health care, made universally accessible to individuals and families by acceptable means, with their full participation, and at a cost that the community and country can afford, is the nucleus for the overall social and economic development of the community.

Patterns of community health work should include a minimum of education concerning prevailing health problems and the methods of identifying, preventing, and controlling them; promotion of an adequate food supply and proper nutrition; basic sanitation; promotion of an adequate supply of safe drinking water; basic maternal and child health care, including family planning; prevention and control of locally endemic diseases; immunization against the major infectious diseases; appropriate treatment of common diseases and injuries; and the provision of essential drugs.

Community health workers must in everything they do keep in mind the culture they are serving. This calls for adaptable people, even in North America, where one can serve many different cultures in the same community. Community health workers in all situations must do two things: (1) Take careful account of the current practices and resources of the people, being careful to value and keep all that is good and constructive. (2) As much as possible, work with the people in making necessary changes to help them maintain control of the power for the changes they want. Things that make persons dependent on outside resources instead of making them involved in the process of improving their own health are short-sighted.

Community health workers encounter many situations where human rights and freedoms are in jeopardy. Assuming health-care is a right, community health workers have the responsibility to be advocates for individuals, families, and groups; to identify and rectify gaps in health-care services; and to influence health and social policies that are inconsistent with this basic right. Communities also have the right and the responsibility to identify their own health needs and to negotiate regarding priorities for intervention and program development.

It is impossible here to describe all the community health work being done today by the many branches of Mennonites. Mennonite four-year colleges that give a BS degree do include community health work as part of nursing, social work, nutrition, and community development curricula.

The Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions first sent missionaries to East Africa in 1934. One of these missionary couples was sent, prior to going to the mission field, to the National Bible Institute for Missions in New York City for one semester to learn first aid, to study anatomy, to learn about health in other countries, and to learn how to meet the simple health-care needs of the missionary families and African people. One year later a physician was sent to open the first medical program. The emphasis, as in the United States, was on curative rather than preventive medicine. This emphasis continued until the 1970s.

The first community health work of the Mennonite Church (MC) took place at the tuberculosis sanitarium in La Junta, Colorado. The first planning for this work is recorded in 1903 in the Herald of Truth. The Mennonite Church also sent missionaries to India in the late 1800s. Although community health work was not being called by that name then, the events recorded in mission history include harnessing the Mahanadi River for irrigation purposes, constructing a dam, and digging a canal. These activities today would be called community health work.

Mennonite Central Committee and other branches of Mennonites are active in community health and development work. Over the years many Mennonites trained as physicians, social workers, environmentalists, nurses, agriculturalists, nutritionists, and support personnel have worked in emergency relief, disaster aid, medical care, nutrition, mental health care, refugee resettlement, community development, and teaching of primary health care in community settings around the world.

Community health activities change according to different situations, changing technology, and changing social values. The goals, however, remain the same throughout the world: to reduce the amount of disease, premature death, discomfort, and disability.

See also Health Services


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Author(s) Julia Leatherman
Date Published 1987

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Leatherman, Julia. "Community Health Work." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 2 Aug 2021.

APA style

Leatherman, Julia. (1987). Community Health Work. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 176-177. All rights reserved.

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