Healthy living can be complicated. Recommendations for a healthy lifestyle seem to change frequently. “Sometimes it’s hard to separate what’s truly a medical certainty from what is merely solid scientific conjecture,” explains Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, when discussing rapidly changing health recommendations.
Fortunately, health educators offer peace of mind by translating the complexities of medical advice into easy-to-understand wellness plans aimed at improving personal health. For those interested in following this career path, it’s important to know what these professionals do and how to become a health educator.
What Does a Health Educator Do?
Health educators teach individuals and the public what lifestyle changes can be made to meet health goals and to make wellness part of daily life. When meeting with a client, health educators conduct a comprehensive assessment of the individual’s health priorities. Once the educator and the client have collaboratively established goals, they discuss factors that may contribute to the individual’s inability to meet them. The educator then encourages the client to change any negative behaviors, often with suggested replacement actions to establish healthy habits that improve wellness. To be effective, health educators must stay up to date on the latest wellness research to ensure clients receive relevant and current information.
When working with the public in a community setting, such as wellness centers, public health departments, colleges, health care facilities, nonprofits, and private businesses, health educators’ responsibilities are tailored to the type of community they serve. They survey community members to determine their needs and then design programs, create materials, and host events to meet those needs. They may also help groups of people find resources and even advocate for improved health care policies.
Where Do Health Educators Work?
There are a variety of environments in which health educators may find employment. Hospitals frequently hire health educators to offer patients advice on necessary lifestyle changes. Large companies that provide health insurance to employees may find having a health educator on staff who encourages and tracks healthy habits lowers premiums. These professionals may also work as independent consultants, recommending community or corporate wellness initiatives, for example.
Steps to Become a Health Educator
To become a health educator, candidates should hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as health promotion or education. For positions that require the development of complex health initiatives, employers may prefer someone who holds a graduate degree, such as a Master of Public Health or even a doctorate.
The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) offers the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) exam to demonstrate competency in this field. Some employers require that applicants hold this credential to verify they understand the basic principles of health education.
The CHES exam was developed for health educators with an undergraduate degree. Those with at least a master’s degree have the option of taking the Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) exam. To maintain either certification, health educators are required to complete 75 hours of continuing education courses every five years.
Health Educator Salaries
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the national median salary for health educators at $54,220, within a range of $32,030 to $98,530. According to the BLS, educators who work for hospitals earn the most, while those who provide their services to individual or family clients earn the least.
Geographical location can have a significant impact on salary potential. For example, the District of Columbia and the state of Georgia offer salaries of more than $85,000, but states such as Montana and Wyoming pay much less. In general, health educators often earn more if they work in metropolitan areas rather than smaller towns.
According to the BLS, health educators’ time in the field also directly affects their salary potential. A health educator can earn up to 13% more than average after gaining 10 years of experience. Those with at least 20 years of experience may see a 24% salary increase.
Future Growth of Health Educators
The BLS projects the employment of health educators to increase by 14% between 2016 and 2026 — double the projected average growth for all jobs.
Because of the increasing focus on prevention and wellness, the services provided by health educators are rapidly becoming a staple in basic medical care. Instead of waiting until an individual is sick and or has developed a chronic condition, medical professionals are emphasizing the need for identifying wellness gaps that could contribute to poor health later in life.
Health educators are an important tool for striving to prevent health concerns. Executive checkups — comprehensive exams to review patients’ diets and lifestyles — are designed to be proactive and preventive. They are becoming more popular and offer much more than the traditional annual physical. Now, patients can get an assessment of their overall risk for infirmity and meet with consultants, such as health educators, to develop a wellness plan for disease prevention.
Taking the First Step
Health educators play an essential role in helping people maintain their health. Whether an individual has a high risk of developing a specific condition or simply wants to reduce the effects of aging, a qualified health educator can offer insight on the positive actions that promote wellness and the negative behaviors that should be avoided.
To get a more detailed look into how to become a health educator, explore the online Master of Public Health program offered by the College of Health Sciences and Professions at Ohio University.