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Health Educator Careers

Are you considering a career in health education? Learn more about your options...

Health educators have a very important role: prevention. They operate under the premise that it’s far better to stop disease before it happens than it is to stave off the symptoms later. Some diseases, like HIV, hepatitis, and lung cancer correlate strongly with risky behaviors. Others, like heart disease or diabetes, have a genetic component, but a lifestyle component as well. Even when disease is unavoidable, early detection – and proper lifestyle management – make a huge difference in outcome. All these situations fall within the realm of the health educator. Health educators are charged with more than just disseminating information – they must design programs from start to finish, taking into account health research and also research in human behavior. Whether the topic is drugs or blood sugar, they need to find effective ways to reach particular populations. If, for example, the target population is already addicted to drugs, a drug education program will look very different than one designed for suburban middle school kids. Resisting peer pressure is no longer an issue; minimizing the risk of infection from shared needles is a more immediate concern.

Become a Health Educator

Work Setting and Job Duties

Health educators may work for schools, health care facilities, or community and public health agencies. Job setting influences day to day duties. A health educator who is employed by a hospital is more likely to work one-on-one with patients and their families. He might, for example, teach them how to manage diabetes through diet and blood sugar testing. A health educator employed by a school system or governmental agency, meanwhile, might design programs for large audiences.

Health educators have many roles. They may carry out research, design curriculum, prepare pamphlets and web materials… or work with patients who are newly diagnosed and scared. They may also make referrals or serve as resource persons.

Education and Credentialing

Health educators have education at the baccalaureate level or higher. Some positions – like those with public health agencies – require a master’s. There are multiple pathways one can follow. Some health educators start out as practitioners. A nurse might start out working the floor and then, with experience and additional education, move into a health educator role. In some settings, RNs are actually preferred.

Other health educators enter the field directly. They may choose to major in health education at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level, programs go by a variety of names. Students may choose to specialize in public health education or other fields. Potential health educators will want to explore the market in their own geographic area before selecting a major.

Health educators are not licensed, but some employers ask for national board certification. This is offered by the National Commission of Health Education Credentialing. Certification as a Certified Health Education Specialist requires completion of a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral program and passing scores on an exam. Continuing education is necessary to maintain certification.

Salary and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted 18% growth in the health education field between 2008 and 2018. One reason for the increase: Prevention is cost-effective. The BLS does note that while there should be increased demand in most areas, there may be a decline in the number of health educators hired by secondary schools; for the sake of balanced budgets, some schools will decide to place P.E. or science teachers in charge of adolescent health education. The BLS reported a median wage of $44,000 in 2010. There is a good deal of variance from one setting to another. Those who worked in hospitals saw the highest salary: $53,190. Those in colleges and universities had salaries approaching the $50,000 mark. Significantly lower salaries were reported for outpatient care and family and individual services -- $36,830 and $36,050 respectively.

To learn more about becoming a health educator, you can contact schools that offer health education or related programs. Another option is to take some time to explore additional careers in health care that may peak your interest.