If you’ve been thinking about pursuing a career in the healthcare field, your motivations may include the desire to help other people during difficult times and the need to have a meaningful career in which you can take pride. Healthcare is a gratifying field, and there is a vast diversity of career options. One example is the job of health education specialists.
What is a health educator, and what is the process for how to become a health educator? Explore this career guide to learn all about it.
Health Educators Serve as Advocates for Their Communities
To some extent, every healthcare professional is a health educator because one of their roles is to help patients and family caregivers to better understand diagnoses, treatment options and disease or injury management strategies. For example, a physical therapist is responsible for teaching patients how to perform corrective and strengthening exercises and stretches using appropriate biomechanics to prevent the recurrence of injuries. Yet, going to nursing school or earning a doctorate in physical therapy is not necessary to become a health educator.
The “health educator” job title is a non-clinical position that does not require a medical or nursing license. Health educators serve as advocates for their community and the individuals within it. They develop educational programs and outreach activities, help individuals connect to healthcare services and work to make their community healthier and stronger.
The Role of a Health Educator
A passion for health science and education is essential for those pursuing this profession. Health educators are responsible for empowering people to improve their health, manage or treat existing medical conditions, and reduce the risk of future medical conditions. Some of the specific tasks that a health educator may carry out include the following:
- Evaluate the health deficits and needs of individuals and communities as a whole
- Develop teaching materials, programs and other community outreach events intended to promote health education for various topics
- Conduct programs and outreach events, evaluate their effectiveness and identify areas of improvement
- Work one-on-one with individuals, providing health education and helping them connect to local healthcare resources, which may include support groups, appointments with specialists or medical financing assistance
- Train community health workers and other staff, and oversee health education programs
- Collect and analyze public health data applicable to the community
- Serve as an advocate to improve public health resources in the community, as well as access to care for marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged groups
A health educator may conduct public programs on many different health issues. They may lead a workshop for teenage babysitters on pediatric first aid, for example, or develop supportive materials for smokers trying to kick the habit.
Where Do Health Educators Work?
Health education specialists can work in various settings, such as healthcare facilities, nonprofits and public health departments. Those who work in healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and outpatient care centers, are more likely to work one-on-one with patients and family caregivers frequently. Those who work for nonprofits and public health departments are more likely to have a role emphasizing advocacy for governmental policies promoting public health. Work environments include:
- Healthcare facilities: In these settings, health educators typically spend their days helping patients and families understand diagnoses and treatment options. Health educators may also lead programs and events, such as parenting classes for expecting moms and dads, blood pressure screenings and diabetic meal planning workshops. Health educators in healthcare facilities may also help train medical staff on effective and culturally appropriate patient interactions.
- Public health departments: In these settings, health educators often develop materials for public awareness campaigns, such as campaigns that focus on the lifesaving benefits of vaccinations or the need to wear a helmet while riding motorcycles or bicycles. These professionals also focus on advocacy, fueling the development of public policies that advance community-wide health.
- Nonprofit organizations: Within nonprofit groups, health educators will often develop programs and teaching materials to promote health within the community. Depending on the nonprofit’s focus, these programs may focus on a specific area of health. Health educators working for nonprofits might also be responsible for writing grant proposals to help fund the organization.
Becoming a Health Educator
If the answer to the question, “What is a health educator?” resonated with you and is aligned with your career goals, consider talking to your high school guidance counselor. Your guidance counselor may be able to help you shift your schedule to incorporate more classes that are relevant to your career goals. For instance, try to take as many classes as possible in life sciences and other health-related topics, as well as communications, statistics and perhaps a foreign language.
After high school, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. Some entry-level jobs are available as health education specialists for individuals with a bachelor’s degree. However, you will find more positions available to pursue if you also earn a graduate degree.
In addition to your academic credentials, you may wish to earn a voluntary certification. Certification is not required for employment as a health educator, but some employers do prefer to hire professionals who are certified.
Earn a Bachelor’s in Public Health Degree
Public health is the subfield of healthcare that focuses on monitoring, evaluating and promoting the health of an entire community. That community may be a city, state, region or country. Public health specialists work on tackling problems that affect the health of large numbers of people, such as motor vehicle accidents, illicit drug use, poor nutrition or maternal death.
A bachelor’s in public health degree can prepare you to pursue a position within a community health organization. The most appropriate degree for an aspiring health educator is a public health degree. You can also look for a degree program that acknowledges and incorporates the Eight Areas of Responsibility for Health Education Specialists, established by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). These areas of responsibility include needs and resources assessment, health education promotion and health advocacy.1
The specific curriculum for a public health degree will vary from one school to the next. In general, however, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The fundamental concepts of life sciences and the scientific method, with a focus on human biology and physiological processes
- The methods of promoting health within communities, with a look at social determinants of health and the theoretical contexts of health behaviors
- Environmental factors that influence human health, including occupational wellness and emergency preparedness
- The biopsychosocial model of health psychology, with a look at theories relating to pain management, stress management and health behaviors
- Frameworks for community assessment, community program planning and the engagement of community participants in public health programming
You are also likely to study topics in public health advocacy, such as:
- The structures, functions and delivery of healthcare services at all levels of government and applicable regulations
- Ethical issues in public health and how to navigate them
Your bachelor’s degree program may include a capstone project in your senior year. A capstone project is typically a research-and writing-intensive project. However, a public health student might instead choose an experiential learning opportunity that involves working directly in the field as a volunteer.
At least a year or two before graduation, consider talking to your university’s student services department about local internship opportunities in public health and health education. Practical, hands-on experience in the field is essential if you do not, or do not have the option to, choose an experiential learning opportunity for your capstone project.
Begin Your Career in Public Health Education or Services
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public health, you have a big decision. You could begin applying for work to gain practical experience, or you might decide to immediately go on to enroll in a master’s degree program. There is no right or wrong answer; it is your choice.
If you decide to gain some work experience before pursuing graduate education, you might apply for entry-level positions at nonprofits, hospitals or community health departments. Job qualification requirements will vary, but you should be able to find some positions that do not require graduate-level education. Look for roles such as the following:
- Public health program specialist
- Community outreach coordinator
- Health services manager
- Health education program coordinator
Remember that internships are another viable option for gaining experience after college—they aren’t only for current college students. Some internships offer a stipend or wages in addition to invaluable training.
Obtain Your Master’s Degree
Many health and public health organizations prefer or require that their job candidates for health education positions possess a graduate degree. You may decide to enhance your job qualifications by applying for enrollment in a master’s degree program, either after gaining some work experience or immediately following graduation from your bachelor’s program. Look for a university that offers a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree.
An MPH degree will deepen your understanding of local, state, national and global public health issues. You will explore scientifically based best practices in developing, planning, implementing and evaluating public health programs. At the graduate level, there is also typically a focus on leadership styles, skills and communication.
The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but in general, students working toward an MPH can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The social and behavioral approaches to health promotion at the individual, organizational and community levels to reduce health disparities and improve access to care
- The interpretation and application of public health data through the use of appropriate data analysis methods
- How to serve as a public health change agent by employing effective and ethical communication practices, with a look at cultural competencies and health literacy considerations
- Principles in strategic leadership and public health services management, with an emphasis on strengthening collaboration and promoting cross-cultural competencies
Your MPH degree should include a public health practicum, allowing you to practice what you’ve learned within a public health setting under supervision. You’re also likely to complete a capstone course, typically involving a research- and writing-intensive project. Alternatively, some schools require the completion of a master’s thesis.
Earn a Voluntary Certification in Health Education
Health educators who hold a certification may be more likely to land jobs successfully in this field. Some employers may require a certification of their job applicants. The most well-known and respected credentials in the field are available from the NCHEC.
There are two credentials: Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) and Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES®). To qualify to earn the CHES® credential, you will simply have to demonstrate your academic qualifications; no work experience is required.2 Earning an MCHES® credential requires both academic qualifications and relevant work experience.3 Both credentials require the successful completion of an exam.
You can begin working toward a meaningful and rewarding career in health education by applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree program is offered alongside our many nursing, medical science and health education programs. Graduates will be fully prepared to pursue positions within community health organizations and apply evidence-based medical research to promote public health. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn how to join our dynamic learning community online or on campus.
1National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc., Responsibilities and Competencies for Health Education Specialists in September 2022
2NCHEC, Exam Eligibility in September 2022
3NCHEC, MCHES Exam in September 2022
Approved by the Dean of College of Nursing and Healthcare Professions on Sept. 11, 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.