The World Health Organization describes health as a state of complete well-being: physically, mentally, and socially. Achieving that state requires access to quality health care, safe living and working conditions, and an unpolluted environment. To be healthy, however, people need to be aware of the behaviors that promote health.
A public health educator with the right skills empowers people to take charge of their own health. Tulane University offers an Online Master of Public Health program that equips graduates to develop health education programs and organize communities to promote health.
The public health field strives to prevent health problems before they begin. Public health professionals do this by advocating for policies that positively affect health, delivering services, and conducting research. Educational programs help build awareness about health topics, inform people of available resources, and teach people how to effectively manage their health conditions.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that six in ten Americans live with chronic diseases. However, most chronic diseases result from unhealthy behaviors that people can modify. How can public health professionals get people to change unhealthy behaviors?
While many factors come into play, education serves an important role. Learning how to eat well, exercise regularly, avoid tobacco, limit drinking, and get routine health screenings can help tackle some of the nation’s leading causes of death and disability. While learning about healthy behaviors does not guarantee people will change their behaviors, it offers a crucial first step.
Education can address many aspects of well-being, ranging from sexual and reproductive health to stress management to nutrition. For example, education initiatives can teach patients living with hypertension how to cope with the condition and minimize its harmful effects on the body, and substance abuse prevention programs can raise awareness about the harmful effects of drug and alcohol misuse.
Those interested in using education as a tool to solve today’s public health challenges can consider pursuing a career as a public health educator. Positions often focus on community organization and health education program planning.
Public health educator careers in community organization encourage community participation to improve health. These jobs involve studying the context for and root causes of health problems with input from the community experiencing them. Often such positions focus on a specific issue such as childhood obesity or violence prevention.
By engaging groups and organizations in the community, public health educators make collaborative decisions with community members. These collaborations identify pressing health concerns and strategies to handle them. In this way, the public health educator empowers communities to solve their own health problems.
This approach to public health also considers how community members and public health professionals influence health situations. In addition to assessing a community’s health needs, public health educators working in community organization cultivate partnerships and work with the community to evaluate programs and initiatives.
Public health educators who focus on program planning develop materials that inform other public health officials or community members about relevant health issues. They also recommend policies that support healthy environments and behaviors. Program development varies depending on where public health educators work.
Public health educators planning programs for schools and colleges focus on issues relevant to young people, such as childhood obesity, eating disorders, smoking, and alcohol use. This involves developing curricula as well as advocating for policies that protect student health, such as snack machines stocked with healthy options. Public health educators may also oversee program implementation.
Educators in public health departments run campaigns about immunizations, emergency preparedness, and nutrition. They create materials and work on policies that help keep communities healthy. Additionally, they provide public safety information in the event of emergencies or public health crises. For example, during a pandemic such as COVID-19, they may inform the public about when to wear a mask or proper hand-washing methods.
A nonprofit’s focus will determine the programs a public health educator develops. Public health educator Stephanie Parr works at Stephenson Cancer Center, where she partners with private foundations to fund mobile mammography. She also coordinates with local and state governments and tribal nations to expand chronic disease prevention and risk reduction programs. Public health educators in nonprofits also help inform policymakers. They advocate for specific policies known to reduce gun violence, lower rates of child asthma, or address the mental health needs of the incarcerated.
Public health educators need to pursue the right education to develop the experience they need for success in their role.
Public health educators must first earn a bachelor’s degree in public health, health education, or a related field. This builds foundational knowledge about health and theories on health behavior. Though some health educator positions only require a bachelor’s degree, many call for an advanced degree, especially positions with leadership duties.
With a bachelor’s degree, public health educators can seek positions that build their skills in the competencies core to health education, including:
- Needs assessment
- Health education planning
- Health education evaluation and research
- Health education and promotion management
Public health educators responsible for developing comprehensive education programs need advanced expertise. For example, they should have a fluent understanding of:
- Public health program design strategies
- Methods for monitoring and evaluating public health programs
- Health communication theory
A Master of Public Health equips public health educators with this knowledge and cultivates the key skills for successfully developing and launching public health education campaigns.
Public health educators seeking to gain a competitive edge benefit from having a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential. To obtain it, public health educators need a bachelor’s degree and must pass an exam. Additionally, public health educators with more experience can obtain a Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) credential. To obtain an MCHES, candidates must hold a master’s degree or have five years of work experience in health education and pass an exam.
To succeed, public health educators need to develop skills in the following areas:
Public health educators assess community needs and programs using data they evaluate. This requires critical thinking and analytical skills.
Public health educators often train staff and educate clients about health issues. This requires an ability to teach and effectively communicate ideas and information.
Public health educators must build trust, communicate effectively, and engage with people from diverse backgrounds. This requires the ability to listen well, act with cultural sensitivity, and show empathy.
Public health educators can face many challenges when planning programs, including budget shortfalls and skepticism from clients. Therefore, they need to be skilled at devising creative solutions and finding ways to overcome obstacles that present themselves.
Public health educators may write curricula, grant proposals, and program materials. Their ability to communicate effectively often relies on their writing skills.
Tackling public health issues calls for a multipronged approach. Public health educators play a key role in developing programs that teach people about health issues and influence individual behaviors that can promote healthier lives. In addition, they inform colleagues and policymakers of critical information that can be used to build healthier communities.
Discover how Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health program prepares graduates to empower communities through health education.