Healthcare can be overwhelming. It’s common to get a diagnosis from a doctor and not be sure what exactly it means. Or you may know you should take steps to improve your health but have questions about where to start. That’s where a health educator can help. Health educators fall under the broad umbrella of public health. Like other professionals in this field, they’re focused on improving wellness and building healthier communities.
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Health educators can take on a few different roles.
“Health educators perform diverse roles in healthcare settings,” says Jessica Retzlaff, executive director of the Health Care Education Association (HCEA). Some provide one-on-one patient education, while others manage patient education resource centers or libraries. Many write and produce content that is used by other health professionals to teach patients or provide internal consultation for healthcare organizations on patient populations’ health educational processes.
“It’s a broad field, (encompassing) people of many professional backgrounds working in a variety of environments such as hospitals, independent businesses, and community settings,” Retzlaff says.
Health educator roles are a great fit for excellent communicators who are passionate about making a difference. In this role, you’ll be empowering patients and community members to play an active role in their own health.
Steps to Become a Health Educator
If you’re interested in becoming a health educator, there are a few important steps to take.
- Have a high school diploma
You’ll need to earn a high school diploma before you can apply to a bachelor’s degree program.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in public health
A bachelor’s degree will build the foundation you need for your career. You can find public health undergraduate programs at colleges and universities around the country, and online courses are available.
- Gain experience
Your bachelor’s program might require you to complete fieldwork or an internship. This is a great opportunity to sharpen your skills and gain hands-on knowledge.
- Find the right job for your interests
Look for jobs that match your interests and are a fit for your education and experience.
- Continue your education
You can boost your career by earning certification or going back to school for a master’s degree. Either option is a great way to stand out to employers and show your dedication to your health educator career.
There are a few different roles you can take on as a health educator. The roles have unique duties but are all dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the populations they work with. Health educators work with people one-on-one and develop, implement, and manage outreach and educational initiatives.
Health Education Specialists
Roles and Responsibilities:
- In this role, you’ll work to teach patients and their families about health conditions. You’ll educate patients and help them manage their health. You might also create educational materials that will be given to newly diagnosed patients.
- Hospitals, nonprofit agencies, outpatient care centers, government health and social service agencies, human services agencies
- Compassion, communication, organization, patience, creativity
Areas of Specialty:
- Patient health, public health, advocacy, disease awareness, population health
Community Health Workers
Roles and Responsibilities:
- As a community health worker you’ll serve as a community advocate and make sure local needs are being served by the available healthcare options. You’ll conduct outreach to educate the community about wellness, health, and safety. You might develop programs to teach about specific conditions affecting your community or conduct workshops to help people use federal healthcare programs such as Medicare.
- Human services agencies, nonprofit agencies, government health and social services agencies, community outreach centers
- Communication, compassion, creativity, organization, leadership
Areas of Specialty:
- Advocacy, population health, disease awareness, public health
Healthcare Provider Instructors
Roles and Responsibilities:
- Health provider instructors create and teach programs that educate other healthcare professionals. You’ll teach nurses, medical assistants, and other clinical staff the best practices for educating patients. You’ll work to improve overall patient education in your facility.
- Hospitals, healthcare systems, outpatient care centers
- Public speaking, communication, organization, creativity
Areas of Specialty:
- Patient health, patient health materials, public health
The minimum education depends on the specific role you’re seeking. Most health educator roles require at least a bachelor’s degree, but you might be able to succeed in some community health worker roles with a certificate or associate degree.
Certifications for Health Educators
There are no national or state certification requirements for health educators. However, many employers in the field do ask that applicants be certified. Additionally, certification is a great way to prove your knowledge and skills in the field. As a rule, it’s a good idea to earn certification even if it’s not required by an employer.
The most common certifications in the field are the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and the Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES), both offered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC).
“Many of our HCEA members have Certified Health Education Specialist credentials,” Retzlaff says. “There are emerging credentials specific to health literacy and patient education, but these are not widely adopted yet.”
You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to apply for either certification. A specific degree focus isn’t required, but your degree needs to include at least 25 credits of coursework that covers the Areas of Responsibility of Health Education Specialists as defined by NCHEC. They include:
Most public health degree programs meet these criteria. Ask your school’s admissions professional or advisor if you’re not sure if your program will allow you to take the exam. Additional requirements for each certification include:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median salary for health educators and community health workers was $48,140 in 2020. Your exact role and workplace will make a difference in your wages. For example, health education specialists working in hospitals earn an average of $65,530, while community health workers in the same setting earn an average of $48,150, according to the BLS.
As a rule, health education specialists earn more than community health workers due to the higher level of education required. The median salary for health education specialists is $56,500 while the median salary for community health workers is $42,000. Your state, city, education, experience, and other factors can also impact your salary.
Health Educator Salary by State
Your state makes a difference in the salary you can earn as a health educator. High salaries can be found in states like Georgia and the District of Columbia. Check out wages for your state or district below.
Median Salary: $56,500
Top 10%: $101,890
Projected job growth: 11.4%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$96,670||$55,370||$141,540|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2029. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Highest Paying Metro Areas
The city you live in can also make a big difference in your paycheck.
|Metro Area-Community Health Workers||Median Salary|
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California||$99,030|
|Manchester, New Hampshire||$66,210|
|Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Connecticut||$64,000|
|Santa Rosa, California||$63,110|
|Metro Area-Health Education Specialists||Median Salary|
|Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia||$66,920|
|New Haven, Connecticut||$89,360|
|Washington, DC; Arlington-Alexandria Virginia||$87,090|
|Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, California||$79,970|
Salary by Workplace
As with most careers, your workplace will impact your salary. High salaries can be found in a number of different areas.
|Community Health Worker Workplace||Median Salary|
|Scientific Research and Development Services||$65,030|
|Skilled Nursing Facilities||$53,880|
|Health Education Specialist Workplace||Median Salary|
|Federal Executive Branch||$108,510|
|Accounting, Tax, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services||$74,820|
|Scientific Research and Development Services||$69,460|
|Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents and Brokers||$68,970|
Roles for health educators are on the rise. The BLS predicts a 13% increase in jobs in the field by 2029. Community health worker roles are expected to grow slightly faster with a projected growth of 15%, while health education specialist roles are predicted to jump 11%.
Beyond your specific role, the state you live in can make a difference in the opportunities available. The states and districts with the highest concentration of employed workers in each field are:
Top States for Community Health Workers
Top States for Health Education Specialists
Looking to the future of health educator roles, Retzlaff says she expects to see changes in the field over the next several years. She expects some roles to be eliminated but also the creation of many new opportunities.
“The demand for high-quality patient education is increasing, and some healthcare institutions are investing heavily in this work to improve patient outcomes,” she says. “However, other institutions are reducing the number of dedicated health education specialists, which shifts the burden to others who may not have the expertise and training to create robust patient education programs and resources.”
Recent healthcare laws and initiatives have also had a major impact on health educator roles.
“There has been an increasing emphasis on patient education (since) the Affordable Care Act was implemented and progressed,” Retzlaff says. “The emphasis on patient experience and value-based purchasing highlights the importance of empowering patients in their own care and including them in the healthcare team to actively pursue their own best outcomes. Healthy People 2030 has broadened the definition of health literacy (and highlights the importance of) individuals finding and using health information.”
It’s important to make connections and stay on top of developments in the health education field. Staying connected is a great way to grow your career and increase your skills as a health educator.
“Joining state-level organizations and organizations specific to your specialty can be a smart move,” says Retzlaff. The HCEA, for example, has a robust website that features practice guidelines for healthcare professionals as well as a listserv that promotes communication within the health educator community.
“There are often state-level organizations and topic-specific organizations that can be valuable networking channels to stay up on the latest practical knowledge, says Retzlaff. There are many publications with patient education and health literacy research and concepts to keep health educators connected.”
Beyond the HCEA, you can check out resources from the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE). Members gain access to publications, professional development tools, and more. Your school’s degree program might also be a great source for career services, alumni connections, and more.