Evidence supports the implementation of task shifting to address health worker shortages that are common in resource-limited settings. However, there is need to learn from established programs to identify ways to achieve the strongest, most sustainable impact. This study examined the Botswana lay counselor cadre, a task shifting initiative, to explore effectiveness and contribution to the health workforce.
This evaluation used multiple methods, including a desk review, a national lay counselor survey (n = 385; response = 94%), in-depth interviews (n = 79), lay counselors focus group discussions (n = 7), lay counselors observations (n = 25), and client exit interviews (n = 47).
Interview and focus group data indicate that lay counselors contribute to essentially all HIV-related programs in Botswana and they conduct the majority of HIV tests and related counseling at public health facilities throughout the country. Interviews showed that the lay counselor cadre is making the workload of more skilled health workers more manageable and increasing HIV acceptance in communities. The average score on a work-related knowledge test was 74.5%. However for 3 questions, less than half answered correctly. During observations, lay counselors demonstrated average competence for most skills assessed and clients (97.9%) were satisfied with services received. From the survey, lay counselors generally reported being comfortable with their duties; however, some reported clinical duties that extended beyond their training and mandate. Multiple factors affecting the performance of the lay counselors were identified, including insufficient resources, such as private counseling space and HIV test kits; and technical, administrative, and supervisory support.
Lay counselors are fulfilling an important role in Botswana's healthcare system, serving as the entry point into HIV care, support, and treatment services.
For this and other similar task shifting initiatives, it is important that lay counselors' responsibilities are clear and that training and support are adequate to optimize their effectiveness.