What Is a Health Education Specialist?

A health education specialist prepares to give a presentation to medical staff.

According to a study published in World Journal of Clinical Cases, the seventh leading cause of death for Latinx people is liver disease and cirrhosis. However, researchers of a study published in Frontiers in Public Health found that only 7 percent of the Mexican-American women they interviewed had even heard of cirrhosis. Of those aware, very few knew that diet and lifestyle choices could affect the disease. The researchers’ conclusion? Communities at high risk for liver disease need more education about what it is and ways to prevent it.

Health education specialists often develop programs that provide just that type of information. What is a health education specialist, and how does one support life-saving health initiatives? To answer those questions, it is useful to examine a health education specialist’s role, education and skill requirements, salary, and job outlook.

The Role of a Health Education Specialist

Health education specialists teach communities how to stay healthy. This involves educating them about both the factors that put people at risk for various diseases and the behaviors that improve wellness.

Health education specialists develop and oversee programs that promote everything from diabetes prevention to mental health to maternal health. They design these programs based on:

  • Data they have collected regarding a community’s specific health needs
  • Research and evidence about effective prevention and intervention methods

Their work also often involves connecting communities to resources, such as information about obtaining health insurance, as well as the health care they need to thrive.

Where Health Education Specialists Work

Health education specialists work in a variety of settings, and these settings often direct their particular focus.

Healthcare Facilities

Organizations that deliver health care often need experts who can educate patients about a range of health-related subjects. Sometimes health education specialists in healthcare facilities help patients understand their diagnoses and options for treatment.

Other times, health education specialists organize awareness and screening programs to improve early identification of diabetes, cancer, and other conditions. They might also coordinate initiatives that teach families about the benefits of breastfeeding, how to install a car seat, or how to address postpartum depression, to name a few.

Additionally, health education specialists may work with healthcare providers, training them in methods to strengthen their bedside manner or communication practices.

Nonprofit Organizations

Health education specialists also find employment in nonprofit organizations where they create health education programs for the specific communities the nonprofit serves.

For instance, health education specialists may work in an advocacy nonprofit such as the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA). The NHMA focuses on improving the health of Latinx and other underserved communities by educating physicians and policymakers about healthcare delivery models that better meet Latinx health needs. They address issues including the relatively high levels of certain diseases such as cirrhosis and relatively low levels of health access and utilization within Latinx populations.

Public Health Departments

Public health departments create health education campaigns that tackle many issues including

  • Vaccinations
  • Preparing communities for emergencies such as hurricanes
  • Screening children for lead poisoning

These departments depend on health education specialists’ skills in designing educational materials that get distributed to community members and public health officials.

Health education specialists may also play a role in influencing public health policies within their departments. As an example, they may help establish recommended guidelines for creating healthy work environments, such as ways to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and other diseases.

Health Education Specialist Responsibilities

Reviewing some key duties of the position can help explain what a health education specialist is. Educating communities about health entails several responsibilities, including:

Needs Assessment

Before developing education campaigns or programs, health education specialists first must determine the needs of the communities they serve. That involves gathering data about the challenges a community faces. For instance, by collecting and analyzing data, a health education specialist may discover high rates of opioid addiction or childhood obesity in a community. This information offers guidance about what types of programs to develop, where to target them, and how to set their priorities. Needs assessment also helps when setting goals for a program and determining what resources a program will need.

The process of conducting a needs assessment may involve issuing questionnaires or surveys. Often health education specialists organize focus groups and public meetings to collect relevant information about community health issues. Additionally, health education specialists review vital statistics, mortality reports, and hospital records to gain insight into areas of need.

Health Education Program Development

With the right information, health education specialists can develop effective, research-based initiatives that match a community’s needs.

Health education specialists’ work focuses on improving community health through programs that influence people’s behaviors. The programs can involve activities such as workshops, webinars, or classes that increase a community’s understanding of a particular health topic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that effective health education provides “functional health information,” that is, information with an applicable purpose. For example, rather than spending too much time reviewing statistics related to diabetes, functional health information might instead concentrate on the importance of smoking cessation and help individuals enroll in smoking cessation programs that have been proven to work.

Health education programs can also help address the barriers preventing people from accessing the health care they need.

Required Education and Skills for a Health Education Specialist

Successful health education specialists need to acquire expertise in public health and health behaviors. Many take the following steps to develop the necessary knowledge required for the position.

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Most health education specialist positions require a bachelor’s degree in health promotion at a minimum. The degree provides graduates with foundational knowledge of health behavior theories and approaches to health education. Some programs may offer internships as well, which provide valuable hands-on experience in health education.

Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree

To advance their careers, health education specialists often pursue master’s degree programs, usually in public health, community health education, or a related discipline. Master of Public Health (MPH) curricula teach critical information about behavioral science. This gives graduates a better understanding of how to motivate people to make healthier decisions. The degree also dives into how to use data to assess and address health risks

Health education specialists also have the option of pursuing a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH). For some top leadership positions, doctorate degrees can give job candidates a competitive edge.

Step Three: Get Certified

Health education specialists have several choices for certification. The National Commission for Health Credentialing offers certifications for both entry-level and advanced health education specialists. The certifications require completing degree programs in public health or related disciplines and successfully passing an exam.

The Certification Board for Diabetes Care and Education offers a credential for health education specialists addressing diabetes. This credential requires licensing in one of a number of healthcare disciplines, for example, as a registered nurse or physical therapist. Those certified as master certified health education specialists can also apply for the credential.

Health Education Specialist Skills

Key health education specialist skills include:

Analytical Skills

Health education specialists conduct research and sort through many types of information to gain insights into the needs of the communities they serve. This requires sharp analytical skills and an ability to assess the relevance of what is in front of them.

Problem-Solving Skills

By coming up with creative ways to address health challenges, health education specialists use problem-solving throughout their daily work. They find solutions in the program planning process, but also must solve problems throughout a program’s implementation.

Teaching Skills

Health education specialists regularly teach community members and community health workers about a range of health topics. They must be able to effectively present information in interesting ways that motivate people into action. They also need to accurately interpret people’s level of understanding and modify their instruction to accommodate people’s learning styles.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Health education specialists work with people from all walks of life with whom they must build a rapport. They should know how to communicate health information in clear, accessible ways. They also need to actively listen, as well as give and receive feedback to best assess a community’s needs and develop trust.

Health Education Specialist Salary and Job Outlook

Health education specialists had an annual median salary of $56,500 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners made upwards of $101,890 a year. The BLS projects positions for health education specialists will grow 13 percent between 2019 and 2029, more than triple the 4 percent average growth rate projected for all occupations.

Improve Community Well-Being by Launching a Career as a Health Education Specialist

What is a health education specialist? Health education specialists use their expertise about human behavior and public health to promote health and well-being in communities. Their strategies can help reduce infant mortality, tackle the opioid epidemic, and address numerous other public health challenges that affect people’s lives.

Discover how Tulane University’s MPH in Community Health Sciences prepares graduates to uncover the health challenges communities face and devise educational programs that help solve them.

Dr. Alicia Battle: An Impactful Career in Public Health Education and Practice

How to Become a Public Health Educator

Why Community Health Is Important for Public Health

Sources

AHA Community Health Improvement, “Community Health Assessment Toolkit”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Characteristics of an Effective Health Education Curriculum

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Community Guide

Certification Board for Diabetes Care and Education, Eligibility

Frontiers in Public Health, “Awareness, Knowledge, and Misperceptions Related to Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease in a Community Sample of Mexican-Origin Women: A Mixed Methods Study”

Healthcare Business Today, “The Importance of Health Education”

National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Choose Your Certification Path

Rural Health Information Hub, Health Education

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2020,21-1091 Health Education Specialists

World Journal of Clinical Cases, “Current Trends of Liver Cirrhosis In Mexico: Similitudes and Differences with Other World Regions”