Poor mental health, limited daily activities, reduced physical functioning — adults over 65 with low levels of health literacy experience these adverse conditions more than their peers with higher health literacy levels, according to Healthy People 2020.
In fact, research has consistently shown that improved health literacy can change people’s health outcomes for the better, whatever their age. This underscores the importance of health education programs. Community health educators develop vital initiatives that target the health education needs of specific communities, taking into account the economic, social, and cultural factors that affect community members’ health and wellness.
Communities in the same geographic area often confront similar environmental and economic conditions that can affect community members’ likelihood of disease, mental health, and life expectancy, such as:
- Limited access to healthcare services
- Exposure to chemicals and pollutants
- Low employment rates
- Community safety issues
These factors influence rates of chronic diseases, premature mortality, maternal and infant mortality, and other important health outcomes. As an example, individuals living near a factory or dumping site may experience respiratory issues caused by air pollutants or gastrointestinal illnesses resulting from contaminated groundwater.
Community members may also share the health consequences of living in locations with poor access to nutritious food options or a shortage of primary care doctors providing preventive care, such as immunizations, cancer screenings, and wellness check-ups. Additionally, individuals who live in communities with high crime rates or overpolicing may collectively experience related mental health issues.
For these reasons, applying a community health and wellness approach has many advantages. Under the public health umbrella, community health focuses on preventing disease and promoting wellness by concentrating on specific geographic areas where significant health disparities exist. The high level of need in these communities stems from collectively experienced barriers to getting affordable health care, mental health services, and other support for health and wellness.
The community health approach recognizes that, within specific locations, community members often confront similar challenges when it comes to staying healthy. By addressing the shared health risks faced by people in particular neighborhoods, cities, or even entire regions, community health educators help reduce the level of chronic diseases, increase vaccination rates, and improve access to health care in those communities.
Culture profoundly affects how individuals understand, communicate, and act on information regarding their health. Community health prioritizes culturally competent health care, a delivery method that strives to nurture behaviors and attitudes through cross-cultural understanding and communication.
Community health’s embrace of cultural competence helps ensure that individuals receive health education on topics vitally important to their particular needs and circumstances. It also helps ensure that the delivery of health education honors and caters to a person’s unique cultural perspectives.
Community health and wellness programs use educational materials vetted to meet a population’s cultural, language, and literacy needs. For example, when providing prenatal education, community health educators may incorporate traditional knowledge from the expectant mothers’ cultures into their care practices. They may also ensure the mothers have informational materials about delivery options in their native language. Such culturally relevant education can result in better outcomes for pregnant women and their families. In general, this community health approach improves communication and builds mutual understanding and respect, which ultimately results in successful community health education programs.
Research consistently links low health literacy and poor health outcomes. Addressing low health literacy requires a strategic approach that pinpoints specific health literacy gaps, which can vary by community. Economically vulnerable communities often have low literacy levels, which can get in the way of their receiving needed messages about health and wellness. Difficulty reading or interpreting information can make it exceedingly hard for individuals to understand potential health issues and treatment options or to make well-informed health-related decisions. This contributes to health disparities.
Community health education initiatives teach people to recognize symptoms of poor health. Such recognition empowers people to seek the medical care they need more quickly. Early detection of illnesses can prevent disease progression. For example, detecting breast cancer at its early stages dramatically increases survival rates.
Without health literacy, individuals may struggle to manage complex health conditions, such as diabetes, or engage in self-care that can help prevent stroke. This can lead to higher disease and hospitalization rates. It can also result in community members using emergency rooms for primary care, which can have significant economic consequences.
Community health education, however, can lead to huge improvements in community health. For example, targeted health education programs can help individuals understand the value of preventive care. Community members may then schedule more cancer screenings, get flu vaccinations, and check their blood pressure regularly, all of which can result in better health outcomes.
Targeted health education programs that take into account general literacy levels, cultural factors, and community health needs can address a variety of health concerns including:
- Substance abuse
- Heart disease
- Domestic violence
Community health educators empower people to take control of their health by connecting them to lifesaving resources and health information.
Community health educators develop initiatives that teach communities about everything from Naloxone, a medicine that reverses an opioid overdose, to survival tools for people who experience domestic violence.
These specialists use various techniques to uncover the most pressing health education needs of the communities they serve. They then develop strategies that address those needs. This often involves leveraging a community’s own strengths and participation to promote community health and wellness.
Typical responsibilities of community health educators include:
- Evaluating community health needs
- Creating health education programs on a range of health topics
- Training community health workers to deliver educational workshops
- Gathering and interpreting data about a community’s health
- Researching for evidence-based interventions that best suit a community’s needs
- Advocating for policies and resources that improve community health
For greater insight into what community health educators do, exploring some of their core duties in detail is useful.
A needs assessment is a formalized process to learn about a local population’s needs. Needs assessments provide critical direction to community health educators regarding where and how to channel their attention.
Before developing any initiative or program, community health educators should deeply understand the communities they serve and those communities’ most urgent health education needs. To build insight, community health educators collect an array of data from both primary and secondary sources. Primary source data comes directly from the community members to be served. It includes:
- Focus groups
- Public meetings
By engaging community members and seeking their input, community health educators discover critical information not always readily available from reviewing statistics or reports. Additionally, by organizing focus groups and the like, community health educators give residents the opportunity to set their own priorities. This instills communities with a sense of ownership and can encourage greater participation and investment in any programs that follow.
Secondary sources may include:
- Mortality rates
- Morbidity rates
- Demographic data
- Statistics on maternal age
- Immunization rates
- Domestic violence rates
- Emergency room visit rates
- Crime incidence
- Community health educators collect this data from various places including:
- Health departments
- Hospitals and healthcare providers
- Law enforcement agencies
From this collected information, community health educators identify the health topics that are most relevant to a community’s needs.
During needs assessments, community health educators not only gain clarity on a community’s health issues. They also identify community assets. These assets may include community members’ skill sets, free clinics, substance abuse care centers, or community health centers. By completing a needs assessment, community health educators gain a solid foundation for developing effective health education programs.
Community health education programs set out to prevent disease and illness, bolster wellness, and enhance community members’ quality of life. They educate people about their health in environments outside of traditional clinical settings, such as schools, community centers, or even worksites. This maximizes the number of people they reach.
Community health education programs start by setting clear goals. These objectives should align with the communities’ priorities that were identified in the needs assessment. Community health educators then develop strategies to meet those goals. This can involve:
- Forming community partnerships
- Recruiting community support
- Developing learning activities and educational materials
- Assessing program effectiveness
For example, to create an education program aimed at limiting unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections among adolescents, community health educators may partner with local high schools. They may also recruit support from the local health department to provide informational materials about sexually transmitted diseases. Additionally, they may develop a well-planned curriculum about various forms of contraception and safe sex practices.
Community health educators customize the programs they develop and use innovative practices that best meet the needs of the communities they serve. They investigate evidence-based interventions and use evidence-based information and recommendations to guide their strategies.
Community health educators also must determine their programs’ strengths and weaknesses. This allows them to make needed adjustments and ensure continuous improvement. Evaluating health education programs involves tracking and monitoring data to assess if the strategies in place are achieving program objectives.
For instance, the health education program designed to limit unwanted pregnancies may have the goal of increasing condom use among teenage participants within six months. To measure progress, program participants may be asked to fill out anonymous surveys on their condom use practices. However, if these surveys indicate no increase in condom use after six months, this may suggest that the learning activities, materials, or approach need altering.
Community health educators need at minimum a bachelor’s degree in public health or a related subject such as health education. These degrees introduce students to the fundamentals of health education, the U.S. healthcare system, and health promotion. They also teach students about behavioral sciences to give them grounding in the motivating factors that influence people’s health choices.
Many community health education positions require a master’s in public health. This advanced degree delves deeper into key topics a health educator needs to understand. For example, coursework covers community health education programs’ design, implementation, and evaluation. Curriculum also addresses how to empower individuals to take charge of their community’s health problems through community organization. These programs typically offer fieldwork experience as well, giving students the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to real-world situations.
Though not always mandatory, community health educators often benefit from obtaining a certification, such as the master certified health education specialist credential, or MCHES. Earning this credential offered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing indicates a high competency level in:
- Assessing community needs and resources for health education
- Planning and implementing health education and promotion
- Conducting health education research
- Administering and managing health education
MCHES requirements include both extensive education in health education along with at least five years’ experience in the field. Additionally, applicants must successfully pass a competency-based exam.
To succeed in their role, community health educators need to cultivate several relevant skills, including:
Community health educators gather data and analyze health indicators and risks to prioritize the most needed health education programs. They also evaluate the success of the programs they have implemented and assess what strategies can lead to needed improvements.
To successfully lead programs, community health educators must collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds. This requires an inability to inspire cooperation and participation. It also involves identifying people’s strengths and delegating responsibilities accordingly.
Writing proposals for health education programs and developing educational materials require excellent communication skills. Community health educators must also make health-related information clear and accessible to community members.
As educators, specialists in community health must use effective instructional strategies when facilitating workshops or teaching classes. They also need to understand pedagogical concepts and use them as a basis for education programs they develop.
Running successful community health education programs requires good listening skills, empathy, and responsiveness to community members. Community health educators regularly confront problems in launching and maintaining programs. To solve these problems, they need to interact with others and build trusting relationships.
Community health educators had a median annual salary of $56,500 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners made more than $101,890 a year. Community health educator salaries vary according to professionals’ years of experience, specific position, education level, and job location.
BLS data indicates that local, state, and private hospitals pay community health educators the most. The median annual salary for professionals in that industry is $65,530. Government and outpatient care center positions also pay higher salaries, with a median annual salary in those industries of $59,070 and $57,850, respectively, according to the BLS.
Community health educators can expect a promising job outlook in the years to come. The push to improve health literacy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic may account for a significant increase in demand for community health educators. The BLS projects positions in the field will grow 17 percent between 2020 and 2030. This is more than twice as fast as the 8 percent average projected growth rate for all occupations.
Community health education programs can play a vital role in helping vulnerable communities live healthier lives. Community health educators use their expertise to develop initiatives that give people the information they need to take control of their health. By engaging community members and drawing on local resources, community health educators design culturally relevant strategies that change lives.
Discover how Tulane University’s Master of Public Health in Community Health Sciences prepares graduates to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent disease through education at the grass-roots level.