What Are Community Health Centres?

Marcy Cohen/Andrew Longhurst
March 1, 2019

Community Health Centres (CHCs) have been an effective but under-valued model for delivering primary health care for decades in Canada and the US. 

One of the unique features of the model is its strong focus on the social determinants of health and preventing acute illness among groups who are more likely to experience poor health and suffer from chronic conditions, including low-income people, ethno-cultural communities, Indigenous peoples, and frail seniors. 

So what are community health centres? CHCs are non-profit primary care organizations that provide integrated health care and social services, with a focus on addressing the social determinants of health. Five commonly accepted characteristics include:

  1. CHCs provide team-based inter-professional primary care that includes a range of health care and social service providers, including social workers, family physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, dieticians, occupational therapists, clinical pharmacists, physiotherapists, respiratory therapists, cross-cultural health brokers, First Nations elders, mental health counsellors, and outreach workers, among others.
  2. CHCs integrate medical care, mental health and substance use services, health promotion and chronic disease management programs. Many CHCs also provide vision and dental care.
  3. CHCs are community-governed and responsive to the patients/members they serve. This means that they are legally established as non-profit societies or co-operatives and provide open membership to their patients (who are members of the organization). It also means that patient-members can participate on the board of directors and in other parts of the governance of the organization.
  4. CHCs actively address the social determinants of health such as poverty, access to housing, education, language barriers and other factors that have a direct impact on health. CHCs take an upstream approach intended to prevent illness and promote wellness.
  5. CHCs demonstrate commitment to health equity and social justice, and recognize that disparities in health status among the population are socially, economically, and institutionally structured—and that these disparities are avoidable and unfair. CHCs work to eliminate these health inequities through a community development approach and advocating for public policies that address the upstream determinants of health, including fair taxation, living wages, decent working conditions, safe and affordable housing and quality public services.

On February 1, 2019, the BC Health Coalition, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Health Sciences Association of BC convened an invitational roundtable followed by a public talk in response to growing interest in the CHC model from communities across the province. That interest has also been taken up by government; in 2017, the NDP made an election campaign commitment to support the development of new (and existing) CHCs—a commitment that was re-affirmed in the new government’s May 2018 primary care directions.

Over 70 people from a broad range of community non-profit and health sector organizations participated in the roundtable including health professionals, immigrant and newcomer-serving organizations, the Ministry of Health, Divisions of Family Practice and Health Authority representatives, the First Nations Health Authority, seniors’ organizations, the BC Rural Health Network, and leaders from the CHC sector in BC. Participants heard how CHCs in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Oregon provide responsive, team-based primary care that is community-led and that has proven very effective in addressing the unmet needs of vulnerable populations as well as the broader neighbourhoods and communities where they are situated (audio available below).

As BC moves to support a role for CHCs within a larger agenda for reforming primary care, what can we learn from other jurisdictions where CHCs are integrated into the broader primary care system? How can we support CHCs in BC to be leaders in improving the quality of care for the entire health system?

Find out more by clicking on: The importance of community health centres in BC’s primary care reforms: What the research tells us. 

Marcy Cohen/Andrew Longhurst
March 1, 2019