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: Health Communication Specialist Description
Why are health literacy and health communications important? A person with low health literacy may be more likely to experience a poor health outcome. This can be attributed to many factors, such as a reduced likelihood that the patient will adhere to treatment regimens, take medications as directed or attend follow-up visits. Clearly, a patient who has trouble following treatment recommendations is less likely to experience a positive health outcome.
Health literacy doesn't require patients to have an understanding of complex medical terminology, nor does it require the memorization of all possible side effects of medications. The term "health literacy" simply means that a person is able to take in information, process it and apply it.
For example, consider a child learning how to read. It is not necessary for the child to memorize every page in a book in order to be considered literate. Rather, literacy means that the child has the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully navigate the written word.
Similarly, a health-literate person may not instantly know all about a new medication they’ve been prescribed. However, they do know how to interpret and apply dosage instructions and other label information. A health-literate person also knows how to ask questions of a doctor or pharmacist when necessary.
Health literacy is a crucial skill that everyone needs to have. A health communication specialist makes it their life’s work to help 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?
A health communications expert has two main goals:
- 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
The latter goal is focused on preventive healthcare, whereas the former goal involves empowering patients to manage their conditions appropriately. In order to accomplish their goals, a health communication specialist will sometimes work one-on-one with patients in healthcare settings. However, these professionals can also design, implement and monitor public health awareness campaigns aimed at reaching large numbers of people.
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 that convey health information in a compelling, easy-to-understand way and distribute the materials to the public
- Develop public service announcements and similar ad campaigns regarding health issues
- Host workshops with members of the public to educate them about chronic disease management or preventive health choices
- Assess past and current public messaging to evaluate its effectiveness and then use the findings to develop more effective campaigns
- Assist patients in understanding health information and connect them to additional healthcare resources
In addition, health communication specialists typically work closely with community health workers and other healthcare professionals. Health educators may develop and implement training programs for these other professionals. They may also supervise staff members who conduct health education training programs.
Lastly, a health communication specialist can serve as a powerful public health advocate. They may lobby on behalf of the public in favor of improving the health resources of the community or shaping public policies 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.
Although a health sciences degree that specializes in public health is an excellent choice for aspiring educators, it is not the only option. Some aspiring health educators decide to major in a pre-med program, which instills foundational knowledge in medical topics. You could even major in an athletic training degree program, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of amateur and professional athletes.
Do Health Communication Specialists Need a Graduate Degree?
It’s entirely possible to land your first job as a health educator with a bachelor’s degree and perhaps an additional certification or credential (see below). However, some employers may require an advanced degree. Even if your future employer does not require a graduate degree, earning one is a smart choice because it can open the door to higher-level opportunities and greater income potential.
You may wish to immediately move on to a master’s degree program after earning your bachelor’s degree. However, this is not strictly necessary.
You may prefer to jump into the job market first and earn your master’s degree on a part-time basis while working. 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.
Regarding your choice of degree program, there are many options available. One excellent 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. You will also explore the following:
- Legal and ethical issues in healthcare settings
- Public health policies
- Contemporary healthcare delivery models
- Managerial skills and servant leadership
When you graduate, you will be fully equipped to excel in your role as a health educator. You will also have transferrable skills that would enable you to successfully execute a career transition to another role in healthcare management or administration, should you ever wish to do so.
Earn Your Health Education Credential
Whether or not 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. If you do decide to pursue your master’s degree immediately after graduating with your bachelor’s degree, then you may prefer to take the credentialing exam after earning your master’s degree instead.
The main credential for health educators is the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential. This is considered the gold standard in health education credentialing. In fact, it may be a requirement for working for certain healthcare employers. The credentialing exam is administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC).
The eligibility criteria for the CHES exam are fairly straightforward. To qualify to take the exam, you will need to provide an official transcript of your bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited institution that reflects major or significant coursework in health education. You will also need to submit an exam application to the NCHEC.
The CHES exam itself is a rigorous exploration of your health education competencies. You will answer 165 questions. Upon exiting the exam, you will receive provisional results in a pass/did not pass format. Later, you will receive your official score report.
The questions on the exam cover the Seven Areas of Responsibility, which are competencies that have been verified by the Health Education specialist Practice Analysis (HESPA) project. These Seven Areas of Responsibility are as follows:2
- Assess needs, resources and capacity for health education/promotion
- Plan health education/promotion
- Implement health education/promotion
- Conduct evaluation and research related to health education/promotion
- Administer and manage health education/promotion
- Serve as a health education/promotion resource person
- Communicate, promote and advocate for health, health education/promotion and the profession
Note that you must renew and recertify your credential in order to maintain its validity. It must be renewed every year by paying a fee to the NCHEC. Every five years, you must recertify your CHES credential.
Recertification requires the successful completion of continuing education credits. Health communications experts must complete at least 75 continuing education contact hours (CECH). There are specific requirements for the type of CECH that are accepted, so professionals should be sure to double-check their continuing education credits against the NCHEC’s requirements.
Important Skills and Traits for Those Working in Health Communications
Like every profession, health communications is a field that is best served by professionals who possess certain skills and characteristics. You can actively work on nurturing these skills and characteristics starting from when you first begin to work on your undergraduate health sciences degree. Some of these important skills and characteristics include the following:
- Communication skills: Communication is at the heart of this profession. It is important for health educators to be able to communicate information clearly to people of diverse backgrounds and varying levels of literacy. Furthermore, patients are best served by health educators who have the ability to make the information compelling. For example, it is not enough to simply tell a patient they should quit smoking; a health educator must be able to convince him or her in a compelling and engaging way.
- Instructional skills: A health communication specialist is a teacher. These professionals need to be able to teach workshops and classes, and lead other health promotion programs.
- Problem-solving skills: Health promoters must often think creatively in order to solve real-world problems. For example, they may need to brainstorm solutions to convince reluctant members of the public to get vaccinated or wear masks during a pandemic.
In addition, a health communications expert should have strong analytical skills and ethical decision-making abilities.
Is There a Demand for Health Communication Specialists?
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 baby boomers grow older, they require more hands-on care. In addition, more qualified professionals are needed to replace currently practicing healthcare professionals who are expected to retire during the coming years.
For health educators in particular, the BLS suggests another reason for the rising demand. High healthcare costs have long been burdensome for Americans. In order to lower the overall cost of healthcare in the U.S., there is a strong focus on preventive wellness services.3
Educating patients helps them take charge of their health. It also encourages them to make use of preventive healthcare services that can reduce the risk of serious issues down the road. In short, the job of a health communication specialist can help lower overall healthcare costs in the U.S.
Grand Canyon University offers a number of health sciences degree options that follow a 21st-century curriculum designed to thoroughly prepare students to excel in the healthcare industry. Aspiring health communication specialists are invited to explore undergraduate degree options, which include the Bachelor of Science in Public Health, Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine and Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training program.
Those who already hold a bachelor’s degree can apply to enroll in the online Master of Science in Health Administration program. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen and begin preparing for an exciting future with the full support of our dynamic learning community.
1Pfizer, How Prevalent is Low Health Literacy? In July 2021.
2National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Responsibilities & Competencies, Responsibilities and Competencies for Health Education Specialists in April 2021.
3U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Health Educators and Community Health Workers in April 2021.
*COVID-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
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.