Lay health workers (LHWs) perform functions related to healthcare delivery, receive some level of training, but have no formal professional or paraprofessional certificate or tertiary education degree. They provide care for a range of issues, including maternal and child health. For LHW programmes to be effective, we need a better understanding of the factors that influence their success and sustainability. This review addresses these issues through a synthesis of qualitative evidence and was carried out alongside the Cochrane review of the effectiveness of LHWs for maternal and child health.
The overall aim of the review is to explore factors affecting the implementation of LHW programmes for maternal and child health.
We searched MEDLINE, OvidSP (searched 21 December 2011); MEDLINE Ovid In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, OvidSP (searched 21 December 2011); CINAHL, EBSCO (searched 21 December 2011); British Nursing Index and Archive, OvidSP (searched 13 May 2011). We searched reference lists of included studies, contacted experts in the field, and included studies that were carried out alongside the trials from the LHW effectiveness review.
Studies that used qualitative methods for data collection and analysis and that focused on the experiences and attitudes of stakeholders regarding LHW programmes for maternal or child health in a primary or community healthcare setting.
Data collection and analysis
We identified barriers and facilitators to LHW programme implementation using the framework thematic synthesis approach. Two review authors independently assessed study quality using a standard tool. We assessed the certainty of the review findings using the CerQual approach, an approach that we developed alongside this and related qualitative syntheses. We integrated our findings with the outcome measures included in the review of LHW programme effectiveness in a logic model. Finally, we identified hypotheses for subgroup analyses in future updates of the review of effectiveness.
We included 53 studies primarily describing the experiences of LHWs, programme recipients, and other health workers. LHWs in high income countries mainly offered promotion, counselling and support. In low and middle income countries, LHWs offered similar services but sometimes also distributed supplements, contraceptives and other products, and diagnosed and treated children with common childhood diseases. Some LHWs were trained to manage uncomplicated labour and to refer women with pregnancy or labour complications.
Many of the findings were based on studies from multiple settings, but with some methodological limitations. These findings were assessed as being of moderate certainty. Some findings were based on one or two studies and had some methodological limitations. These were assessed have low certainty.
Barriers and facilitators were mainly tied to programme acceptability, appropriateness and credibility; and health system constraints. Programme recipients were generally positive to the programmes, appreciating the LHWs’ skills and the similarities they saw between themselves and the LHWs. However, some recipients were concerned about confidentiality when receiving home visits. Others saw LHW services as not relevant or not sufficient, particularly when LHWs only offered promotional services. LHWs and recipients emphasised the importance of trust, respect, kindness and empathy. However, LHWs sometimes found it difficult to manage emotional relationships and boundaries with recipients. Some LHWs feared blame if care was not successful. Others felt demotivated when their services were not appreciated. Support from health systems and community leaders could give LHWs credibility, at least if the health systems and community leaders had authority and respect. Active support from family members was also important.
Health professionals often appreciated the LHWs’ contributions in reducing their workload and for their communication skills and commitment. However, some health professionals thought that LHWs added to their workload and feared a loss of authority.
LHWs were motivated by factors including altruism, social recognition, knowledge gain and career development. Some unsalaried LHWs wanted regular payment, while others were concerned that payment might threaten their social status or lead recipients to question their motives. Some salaried LHWs were dissatisfied with their pay levels. Others were frustrated when payment differed across regions or institutions. Some LHWs stated that they had few opportunities to voice complaints.
LHWs described insufficient, poor quality, irrelevant and inflexible training programmes, calling for more training in counselling and communication and in topics outside their current role, including common health problems and domestic problems. LHWs and supervisors complained about supervisors’ lack of skills, time and transportation. Some LHWs appreciated the opportunity to share experiences with fellow LHWs.
In some studies, LHWs were traditional birth attendants who had received additional training. Some health professionals were concerned that these LHWs were over-confident about their ability to manage danger signs. LHWs and recipients pointed to other problems, including women’s reluctance to be referred after bad experiences with health professionals, fear of caesarean sections, lack of transport, and cost. Some LHWs were reluctant to refer women on because of poor co-operation with health professionals.
We organised these findings and the outcome measures included in the review of LHW programme effectiveness in a logic model. Here we proposed six chains of events where specific programme components lead to specific intermediate or long-term outcomes, and where specific moderators positively or negatively affect this process. We suggest how future updates of the LHW effectiveness review could explore whether the presence of these components influences programme success.
Rather than being seen as a lesser trained health worker, LHWs may represent a different and sometimes preferred type of health worker. The close relationship between LHWs and recipients is a programme strength. However, programme planners must consider how to achieve the benefits of closeness while minimizing the potential drawbacks. Other important facilitators may include the development of services that recipients perceive as relevant; regular and visible support from the health system and the community; and appropriate training, supervision and incentives.