Cochrane Summaries

Trusted evidence. Informed decisions. Better health.

The effect of lay health workers on mother and child health and infectious diseases

Lewin S, Munabi-Babigumira S, Glenton C, Daniels K, Bosch-Capblanch X, van Wyk BE, Odgaard-Jensen J, Johansen M, Aja GN, Zwarenstein M, Scheel IB
Published Online: 
17 March 2010

A review of the effect of using lay health workers to improve mother and child health and to help people with infectious diseases was carried out by researchers in The Cochrane Collaboration. After searching for all relevant studies, they found 82 studies. Their findings are summarised below. 

What is a lay health worker?

A lay health worker is a member of the community who has received some training to promote health or to carry out some healthcare services, but is not a healthcare professional. In the studies in this review, lay health workers carried out different tasks. These included giving help and advice about issues such as child health, child illnesses, and medicine taking. In some studies, lay health workers also treated people for particular health problems.

The studies took place in different settings. In many of the studies, lay health workers worked among people on low incomes in wealthy countries, or among people living in poor countries.

What the research says

The use of lay health workers, compared to usual healthcare services:

- probably leads to an increase in the number of women who start to breastfeed their child; who breastfeed their child at all; and who feed their child with breastmilk only; 

- probably leads to an increase in the number of children who have their immunization schedule up to date;

- may lead to slightly fewer children who suffer from fever, diarrhoea and pneumonia;

- may lead to fewer deaths among children under five;

- may increase the number of parents who seek help for their sick child.


The use of lay health workers, compared to people helping themselves or going to a clinic:

- probably leads to an increase in the number of people with tuberculosis who are cured;

- probably makes little or no difference in the number of people who complete preventive treatment for tuberculosis.