It is often said that one’s health is among the most valuable of all possessions, and people have the right to make their own informed healthcare decisions. Yet, all too often, healthcare decisions are made without a patient’s complete understanding of medical information. In fact, about 36% of American adults have a poor level of health literacy.1 It is the job of a health communication specialist to improve the literacy rate in patient populations.
Overview: Careers in Health Communications
The term "health literacy" means that a person is able to take in healthcare information, process it and apply it. Why are health literacy and health communications important? Low health literacy may be linked to poor health outcomes. This can be attributed to factors such as a reduced likelihood that the patient will adhere to treatment, take medications as directed or attend follow-up visits.
A health-literate person may not instantly know all about a new medication they’ve been prescribed or the science behind their treatment. However, they know how to interpret and apply dosage instructions and other label information. A health-literate person also knows to ask a doctor or pharmacist questions when necessary.
Health literacy is a crucial skill that everyone needs. A health communication specialist helps people take control of their own wellness by boosting their health literacy skills. Essentially, a health communication specialist acts as both a health educator and a navigator, guiding patients along their wellness journey.
What Exactly Do Health Communication Specialists Do?
Typically, health communications specialist jobs have two main goals:2
- To help patients with medical conditions better understand their diagnoses, their treatment options, the potential risks of treatment and how to manage their health moving forward
- To help people take charge of their wellness by making healthy choices and reducing the risk of disease
Health communication specialists typically work closely with community health workers and other healthcare professionals, with whom they may develop and implement training programs and supervise staff members as well.
A typical day for a health communications expert might involve any of the following tasks:
- Evaluate public health risks and trends to identify priorities
- Design digital and printed materials
- Develop health-related public service announcements and ad campaigns
- Host workshops to educate members of the public
- Assess past and current public messaging to evaluate effectiveness
- Assist patients in understanding health information and connect them to additional healthcare resources
A health communication specialist can also serve as a powerful public health advocate. They may work to improve the health resources of the community in a way that better protects public health and safety.
Do You Need a Health Sciences Degree To Become a Health Educator?
There are many different pathways to a career in this field. However, every health communication specialist does need at least a bachelor’s degree — ideally a health sciences degree. One excellent option is a Bachelor of Science in Public Health, because health communication specialists are public health workers.
The curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, students can expect to learn about the following topics:
- Culturally appropriate communication skills
- Design, implementation and evaluation of public health information programs
- Methods of promoting healthy choices for disease prevention
- Health psychology, including patient adherence and chronic disease management
- Ethical dilemmas and decision-making in public health settings By the time you graduate, you will be fully equipped to pursue an entry-level position in the health education niche.
How Long Does It Take To Become a Health Communication Specialist?
To begin your career as a health communications specialist, you will typically need a bachelor’s degree in a related field, which usually takes around four years to complete. If you choose to earn your graduate degree or additional certifications, that can add another one to three years.
Do Health Communication Specialists Need a Graduate Degree?
It’s entirely possible to land your first job as a health educator with only a bachelor’s degree. Some healthcare employers may require an advanced degree, but even if your future employer does not, earning one may be a smart choice. Advanced degrees can open the door to higher-level opportunities and greater income potential.
Many graduate-level health sciences degree programs are available online, which offers convenience and flexibility to working professionals. Plus, some employers may offer tuition reimbursement to employees who are sharpening their skills by earning a graduate degree.
One excellent graduate degree choice is a Master of Science in Health Administration. This program will improve your communication skills and empower you to effect positive change within your healthcare organization.
Earn Your Health Education Credential
Regardless of whether you choose to earn a graduate-level health sciences degree, it is recommended that you pursue a health education credential after earning your bachelor’s degree — or after your master’s degree, if you choose to pursue one.
The main credential for health educators is the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential and may, in fact, be a requirement to work for certain healthcare employers. The credentialing exam is administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). You will also need to submit an exam application to the NCHEC to verify that you qualify to take the exam.
Important Skills and Traits for Those Working in the Health Communication Field
Like every profession, health communications is a field that is best served by professionals who possess certain skills and characteristics. Some of these important skills and characteristics include the following:
- Communication skills
- Instructional skills
- Problem-solving skills
You can actively work on nurturing these skills and characteristics starting from when you first begin to work on your undergraduate health sciences degree.
Health Communications Specialist Jobs: Outlook and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for health education specialists and community health workers to increase by about 13% from 2019 to 2029, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 17,000 jobs in the field.3
The robust job growth rate for healthcare professions in general is largely attributed to the aging of the U.S. population, as older generations require more care and are aging out of the workforce. It is also attributed the increasing focus on preventive wellness services in the U.S.3
When looking at salary expectations for careers in health communications, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, health education specialists had a median annual wage of $60,600 in May 2021.4
Grand Canyon University offers several health sciences degree options designed to thoroughly prepare you to excel in the healthcare industry. Aspiring health communication specialists are invited to explore undergraduate degree options, such as the Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree.
Complete the form on this page and begin preparing for an exciting future with the full support of our dynamic learning community.
1Retrieved from Pfizer, How Prevalent is Low Health Literacy? In July 2021.
2Retrieved from National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Responsibilities and Competencies for Health Education Specialists in April 2021.
3COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers
4The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers as of May 2021, retrieved on Sept. 2, 2022. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as health education specialists and community health workers. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions on Dec. 27, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.