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Health Educator Career and Education Overview

Health education can be imperative in prevention or early identification of serious conditions, including lung cancer, HIV and heart disease, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Health educators can also teach people already diagnosed with an illness, such as asthma, about managing their condition to prevent unnecessary trips for urgent or emergency care.

Health education can be a rewarding field that is a lot more challenging than most realize. According to Janelle Wright, Assistant Professor of Nursing at a private university in Illinois, "[health education] involves more than just informing someone of health related facts and skills...it involves having very strong communication skills and is more of a collaborative or coaching process as we help people make decisions for themselves about any changes they wish to adopt in their lives."

Wright continues by saying that the field of health education involves maintaining strong relationship-centered skills and bridging cultural differences.  It also involves honoring another person's worldview and maintaining her or his dignity.  All of these skills are in addition to being resourceful and knowledgeable about new developments in healthcare.

Health Education Specializations and Duties

There's a wide spectrum of educational opportunities in health care. Some of these areas may include university or college instructor/professor, researcher, clinical educator, patient educator, and public health educator.

  • Universities or College Instructor: Instructors or professors at universities and colleges lay out the foundation of their specific healthcare specialty to provide students with the nuts and bolts of skills and knowledge they need in their respective field.
  • Researcher: Oftentimes professors at universities also serve the dual role of being a researcher, though there are individuals who only conduct research without the teaching aspect. Research universities hire professionals to perform research to advance the field.
  • Clinical Educator: These professionals work in their respective field and serve as a mentor or trainer for students working on clinical rotations to gain hands-one experience.
  • Patient Educator: This title could run the gamut of professionals it applies to from diabetes educator to any health care professional who is explaining a procedure to a patient.
  • Public Health: These professionals can be involved in any type of education that promotes healthy lifestyles and prevents injury and disease for communities as a whole.

In the university setting, there are a number of different aspects to the job. Some of these include administrative aspects such as advising students, design and implementation of lectures, labs and hands-on instruction, grading papers and exams, and assessment. Assessment involves much more than just grading exams. Healthcare involves ensuring students can display proficiencies in certain tasks through clinical demonstration before they're able to move on. Designing new courses is another task some health educators have. Also, most health programs have to be accredited and securing accreditation or reaccreditation is a huge task with many components. Some educators review and write textbooks and other educational materials.

For professors employed at research universities, grant writing is a major part of their job. Research entails funding for lab time and materials. Organizations have money set aside for studies on specific topics that are pertinent to their field.  Professors involved in research write grant proposals to obtain the necessary money to conduct their research. They are competing against other professors submitting proposals to gain the grant money. Oftentimes professors who research are also educators in their given field. For these individuals part of their job entails guiding and coaching students through research studies and grant writing. 

How to Become a Health Educator

There are a number of different steps one can take to a health education career depending on the specific employment setting they are seeking. The following are steps based on a career as a health educator at a college or university:

  1. Obtain an appropriate entry-level degree in your specific area.
  2. Earn an advanced degree (master's or master's and then doctorate).
  3. Take the appropriate board exams to become certified and licensed in your respective area of expertise.
  4. Work in your area of expertise for a number of years prior to moving to health education. It is so important for health educators to be able to give their students examples based on their experience working in their given field.
  5. While working in your given field, keep your hands in some aspect of teaching in the profession no matter how small it may seem. For example, you could be involved in guest lecturing for a class.

Students of health education schools can expect a robust series of classes related to all manner of individual and public health concerns as well as the related preventative methods. Standard classes would include developmental psychology, risk identification, as well as personal and public health promotion.

It is not enough to be very knowledgeable of all things health related. In addition to being a living resource of health related information, health educators also must have the skills necessary to engage members of every imaginable demographic and disseminate information to them in a way that is interesting and relevant to these different audiences. Because of this, aspiring health educators should expect classes in public speaking, as well as curriculum and program development.

Health education degree programs

The standard for those beginning careers as health educators is to earn a bachelor's degree in health education. In four years, students of these programs can expect to graduate with a highly respected degree that will help them to secure work in this high-demand field. 

Health education degrees are also available at the master's level, and it is not uncommon for graduates of bachelor's programs to pursue postgraduate study in an effort to expand their field of expertise while creating opportunities for career advancement. After two years of postgraduate study, practicing health educators can earn an extremely prestigious master's degree. Health educators who go on to pursue postgraduate study will earn either a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, Master of Education, or Master of Public Health degree.

The amount of schooling needed for health education professionals truly depends on the job they are pursuing. Some health education professionals have a Ph.D. in their field, which can make these individuals more competitive for job advancement, and allow them to earn a higher salary. Some instructors in this field have more of a specialized training that does not entail a master's or even a bachelor's degree. For instance, certified EMT-Paramedic professionals who have worked in the field for a number of years may choose to teach paramedic classes. While these professionals do not have a bachelor's degree, they have a very specific degree and experience that provides the necessary skills to teach others. 

Health education certification

Another available route to begin a career in health education is to obtain certification. The Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) certification is offered through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc., and is awarded after the applicant has passed an exam. Every five years, 75 hours of continuing education is needed to maintain this credential, according to the BLS.

Those wanting to work for the federal government or even in public health often need to have a master's degree or sometimes doctoral education, reports the BLS. However, a variety of educational programs can be found at the graduate level, including in community health education, health promotion and public health education. At this level, professionals may want to pursue the Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) credential available through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc.

Career advancement for health educators

According to the BLS, job opportunities could be the best for those who speak a foreign language. That is because communication is imperative, particularly if a person is a non-native English speaker and does not understand the available types of health services. Other health educators could have a job advantage simply by completing a college degree and working with a specific population, disability or medical condition, reports the BLS. A bachelor's degree in health education or health promotion is typically needed to enter the field.

Health Educator Skills and Qualities

To excel in health education, first and foremost you must be an excellent communicator, both in speech and writing. You also must possess an analytical mindset because healthcare is so dynamic. This involves being able to look at research and critically evaluate it. Organization skills are a must-have as well as being able to see the bigger picture while still focusing in on the finer points. This is an especially crucial trait to have as a clinical educator. 

There are two different approaches to teaching a student a certain task; showing them how to do it or helping them develop the thought process that will get them there. In healthcare, helping students have the thought process to get to a result is more beneficial than showing them the skill. Otherwise students may memorize how their instructor does a certain exercise and not understand why they're doing it.

Being able to relate to your students is also essential. Empathizing and having the ability to motivate students who each have different personalities and backgrounds is key. Students have lives and life challenges outside the classroom and it is most important that they are learning the material, even if each student learns in their own unique way. According to Connie Weber, professor of athletic training at a health care specific graduate school in Arizona, "When a student fails an exam in one of my classes, I was not so concerned that they failed the exam, but why they failed it, what could have been done for them not to fail it, and then I would ask them if they felt like they gained knowledge, but just were not able to show that knowledge on the exam."

Health Educator Salary and Career Outlook

The availability of jobs in this field can vary greatly depending on factors such as location, employment setting (university, hospital, or other), and what specific field of health education you specialize in. However, the general trend seems to be a need for health related professionals continuing to increase, and the need for health related educators following suite. Here’s a snapshot of data to show job growth outlook in the field:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Health Educators58,04014.5%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

The salary for health educators can vary greatly depending on the type of employment setting, region of the country, years of experience, tenure and rank, and the availability of the skilled individual. You can get an idea of salary possibilities for health educators in the table below:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Health Educators$59,010$31,440$97,160
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Sources:
1.     Health Educators, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics,http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211091.htm
2.     Health Educators and Community Health Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm

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