Since early in the 20th century, health educators have played an important role in addressing challenges to our health.
In the past, when the biggest killers in this country were infectious diseases such as smallpox, science and medicine helped bring these killers more under control. In those efforts the role of the health educator was paramount. Then and now health educators provided expertise in shaping messages, sharing information about different infectious diseases, designing health programs and campaigns, and helping consumers understand disease risks and appropriate ways for improving health status. Now, the greatest threats to our health are chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, obesity, injuries, as well as biological agents. In addressing these threats, the job of health educators involves a knowledge-base and skill set aimed at improving and maintaining the health of individuals, families, and communities.
The official Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) definition of a health educator is as follows: “promotes, maintains, and improves individual and community health by teaching individuals and communities how to assume responsibility for addressing health care issues. They collect and analyze data to identify community needs prior to planning, implementing, monitoring, and interpreting programs designed to encourage healthy behaviors. May also serve as a resource to assist the individual or community and may administer fiscal resources for health education programs.”
Health education is a social science that draws from the biological, environmental, psychological, physical, and medical sciences to promote health and prevent disease, disability, and premature death through theory-based voluntary behavior change activities, programs, campaigns, and research. It is an essential public health service that has people practicing each of the core functions of public health: assessment, policy development, and quality assurance. By focusing on prevention, health education reduces the financial and human costs that individuals, employers, medical facilities, insurance companies, and the nation would spend on medical treatment.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are more than 40,000 community health educators in the U.S. Many health educators specialize in health education or community health (trained and/or certified health education specialists). They practice in schools, colleges, workplaces, medical care settings, public health settings, community-based agencies and organizations and other settings. Others perform selected health education functions as part of what they consider their primary responsibility (medical treatment, nursing, social work, substance abuse/HIV counselors, oral hygiene, etc.). Lay workers may also learn on the job to do specific, limited educational tasks to encourage healthy behavior. While para-professionals and health professionals from other disciplines may offer health education services, they may not be familiar with the specialized body of health education and behavior change knowledge, skills, theories, and research, nor is it their primary interest or professional development focus.
Being a health educator requires specialized study. Over 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. offer professional preparation programs in health education with degrees varying from baccalaureate to doctorate. Health education has entry-level and advanced level competencies that serve as the basis for professional practice. For example, health educators can assess the need for and plan, develop, implement, manage, and evaluate health programs in collaboration with medical staff and community agencies. Nationally, health educators also may receive a special certification in the field, Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), from the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc (NCHEC). A CHES is specifically trained to effectively assess health education needs; plan, implement, and evaluate programs; build coalitions and coordinate the provision of health services; identify resources; act as an advocate for health issues; and communicate health education needs. CHES are re-certified every five years based on documentation of participation in 75 hours of approved continuing education activities. Employing a Certified Health Education Specialists gives your organization professionals who have demonstrated expertise in health education, will increase the effectiveness of your programs, and have contemporary skills and knowledge of health education through their continuing education requirements.
While health educators are traditionally associated with brochures and videos, this association only minimally defines their capacities. Health education in practice has an ecological approach in creating healthy communities. Health educators work at the individual, group, institutional, community and systemic levels to improve health knowledge, attitudes, and skills for the purpose of changing or encouraging behaviors that relate to optimal health status.
The field provides a scientific backdrop that has established strong theories for converting poor health habits to health enhancing behaviors. This rich information is shared in theory-based journals that are renowned in the public health field for the latest research and best practice. These journals include Health Education & Behavior, American Journal of Health Promotion, Health Promotion Practice, Health Education Research, Journal of Health Education to name a few. Health educators also belong to health education professional organizations and adhere to a professional code of ethics.
Health education is celebrated nationally during National Health Education Week during the third week of October. It will be held on October 21-27, 2002 this year. This celebration is an effort to focus national attention on a major public health problem, provide public education on the issue, and improve consumers’ understanding of the role of health education in promoting the public’s health. This year the theme is “Medicine Education: What Children Need to Know.”
To learn more about the field of health education, please contact one of the following member organizations of the Coalition of National Health Education Organizations.
American Association for Health Education
1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191
American College Health Association
PO Box 28937
Baltimore, MD 21240
American School Health Association
7263 State Route 43
PO Box 708
Kent, OH 44240
Association of State and Territorial Directors of Health Promotion and Public Health Education
1101 15th St. NW, Suite 601
Washington, DC 20005
Eta Sigma Gamma
The National Professional Health Education Honorary
2000 University Avenue, Muncie, Indiana 47306
Public Health Education and Health Promotion Section
School Health Education and Services Section
American Public Health Association
800 Eye Street, NW
Washington, DC 20002
Society for Public Health Education
750 First Street, NE, Suite 910
Washington, DC 20002
Society of State Directors of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation
1900 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191-1599
Last updated: July 2002