Home » Specialties » Health Educator

How to Become a Health Educator

health professional consults with younger male patient
Home » Specialties » Health Educator

Health Educator Job and Degree Details

  • What you’ll do: Work with patients and community members to improve wellness.
  • Where you’ll work: Hospitals, nonprofit agencies, private businesses, community settings
  • Degree you’ll need: Certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree, depending on area of focus
  • Median annual salary: $60,600

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.

In this Article

Health educators can take on a few different roles.

  • Many health educators work as health education specialists and focus on patient education.
  • Other professionals take on the challenge of community health work and engage in outreach to help educate community members on health topics and advocate for health improvements.
  • The third type of health educator creates and teaches courses that help other healthcare professionals better explain health information to patients.

“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.

female student raising hand in classroom

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.

female public health educator talking to group of health care professionals

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.

medical class instructor leading class of people with hands raised

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.

several medical students in class writing and on laptops

Look for jobs that match your interests and are a fit for your education and experience.

Continue your education.

female student studying lin library with other students at table

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.

Job Duties

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.

Typical Workplaces:

Hospitals, nonprofit agencies, outpatient care centers, government health and social service agencies, human services agencies

Important Skills/Traits:

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.

Typical Workplaces:

Human services agencies, nonprofit agencies, government health and social services agencies, community outreach centers

Important Skills/Traits:

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.

Typical Workplaces:

Hospitals, healthcare systems, outpatient care centers

Important Skills/Traits:

Public speaking, communication, organization, creativity

Areas of Specialty:

Patient health, patient health materials, public health

A Day in the Life: Health Educator

Health educators are communicators. They work to make health information accessible, understandable, and well-communicated to patients, families, and entire communities. So it’s no surprise that much of a health educator’s day consists of collaborative communication.

“The typical day can vary depending on a health education specialist’s role and institution,” says Retzlaff. “One thing that all patient education professionals have in common is collaboration across disciplines, so meetings are a big part of this type of work.”

Being able to engage in interdisciplinary communication is one of the largest parts of any health educator’s day and is a key aspect of the overall career of a health educator. “People who work in this field are adept at building bridges between departments and understand that successful patient education requires input from clinicians, administrative staff, media specialists, and—most importantly—from patients themselves,” Retzlaff says.

A health educator’s day is highly collaborative, Retzlaff says, and they’re often in charge of professional development for the healthcare team, providing internal consultation to staff, writing policy, writing grants, implementing research, facilitating community engagement, and teaching students.

Required Education

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.

Health Education Specialist

Minimum degree required: You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to work as a health education specialist, and a master’s degree can be a significant career advantage. There are a few different degrees that could prepare you for this career, but if you want to be certified, your degree will need to meet specific requirements. Your best bet to make sure your degree will qualify you for certification is to earn either a Bachelor of Public Health (BPH) or a Master of Public Health (MPH).

Prerequisites: You’ll need a high school diploma before you can enroll in undergraduate courses. It can help to have a solid GPA and good scores on your SAT or ACT exams.

Curriculum: Your courses will prepare you for your health educator role by focusing on subjects such as population health, healthcare advocacy, health and human services, public health, and more. You’ll also learn how to develop educational courses and other learning opportunities.

Time to complete: A bachelor’s degree will generally take four years to complete. Most master’s programs can be completed in two to three years.

Extracurricular requirements: Most programs will ask that you complete an internship or field placement to gain work experience. The exact requirements will depend on your program.

Community Health Worker

Minimum degree required: You’ll need at least a high school diploma and on-the-job training to take on a community health worker role. However, many employers will ask that you’ve earned a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree in a related area. Earning a higher degree can allow you to gain certification and enter the field in a leadership position or other higher-level role. 

Prerequisites: It depends on the program. In general, you’ll need to start by earning a high school diploma. Some certification or associate programs are available to students who’ve earned a GED.

Curriculum: Your curriculum will depend on the degree path you choose. No matter what, you’ll receive training or take courses on subjects such as population health, human services, community outreach, program management, and healthcare advocacy.

Time to complete: On-the-job training and certificates might be able to be completed in as little as a few months. A bachelor’s degree will generally take four years.

Extracurricular requirements: Most programs with a community health focus will require that you complete fieldwork or an internship. The exact requirements will depend on the program.

Healthcare Provider Instructors

Minimum degree required: You’ll generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in public health or a similar field for this role. However, clinical professionals such as registered nurses could also take on this role by earning a certificate in a public health specialization.

Prerequisites: You’ll need to earn a high school diploma before entering an undergraduate program. Strong SAT or ACT scores and a solid GPA can help you secure a spot. Prerequisites might be different for professionals coming from another healthcare discipline.

Curriculum: Your coursework will depend on the degree path you choose. A public health bachelor’s degree is a top option. You’ll study topics such as community health, healthcare policy, healthcare advocacy, and human services if you take this path.

Time to complete: A public health bachelor’s degree will take four years. Professionals coming from a clinical health background might be able to earn a certificate in less than a year.

Extracurricular requirements: Most programs will ask that you complete an internship or fieldwork. The exact requirements will depend on your program.

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:

  • Assessment of Needs and Capacity
  • Planning
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation and Research
  • Advocacy
  • Communication
  • Leadership and Management
  • Ethics and Professionalism

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:

Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)

What it is: This is the entry-level certification for health educators.

Who it’s for: Recent graduates and professionals looking to boost their careers

Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree that meets the NCHEC requirements. You’ll need to submit your transcripts to the NCHEC for verification of your eligibility.

About the exam: The exam will test your knowledge of NCHEC’s Areas of Responsibility. It has 150 questions and is computer-based.

Master Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)

What it is: The advanced certification for health educators.

Who it’s for: Professionals with additional education or experience who want to advance their careers.

Prerequisites: There are two routes to eligibility. The first is to have CHES certification and five years of experience as a health educator. Or, combine five years of experience and a master’s degree that meets NCHEC requirements to qualify.

About the exam: The 165-question advanced-level exam tests the applicant on NCHEC’s Areas of Responsibility.

Median Annual Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median salary for health educators and community health workers was $60,600 in 2021. Your exact role and workplace will make a difference in your wages. For example, health education specialists working in outpatient care centers earn an average of $61,480, while community health workers in the same setting earn an average of $44,240, according to the BLS.

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.

Health Education Specialists

National data

Median Salary: $60,600

Projected job growth: 7.6%

10th Percentile: $37,020

25th Percentile: $46,770

75th Percentile: $78,220

90th Percentile: $102,480

Projected job growth: 7.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $68,140 $39,660 $98,650
Alabama $50,720 $37,080 $79,760
Arkansas $46,940 $37,190 $77,650
Arizona $48,460 $30,700 $77,180
California $61,480 $38,960 $104,210
Colorado $60,670 $38,800 $98,070
Connecticut $61,480 $36,920 $125,250
District of Columbia $97,460 $48,820 $139,440
Delaware $60,910 $42,690 $97,460
Florida $60,010 $31,550 $101,540
Georgia $86,280 $42,440 $137,650
Hawaii $59,610 $39,000 $93,400
Iowa $61,410 $39,940 $77,840
Idaho $62,870 $37,390 $101,550
Illinois $47,770 $37,310 $80,830
Indiana $62,330 $36,900 $97,750
Kansas $49,710 $35,120 $77,710
Kentucky $60,900 $30,160 $103,100
Louisiana $62,120 $36,740 $115,350
Massachusetts $61,620 $31,010 $122,970
Maryland $87,190 $47,230 $138,860
Maine $49,630 $38,430 $81,240
Michigan $49,290 $30,320 $77,370
Minnesota $62,320 $39,000 $97,450
Missouri $47,500 $30,300 $77,280
Mississippi $37,080 $29,190 $63,510
Montana $47,760 $31,060 $76,670
North Carolina $49,240 $37,300 $78,360
North Dakota $60,070 $39,000 $76,920
Nebraska $50,100 $35,260 $81,020
New Hampshire $63,550 $39,120 $99,080
New Jersey $60,910 $47,230 $98,520
New Mexico $46,680 $34,010 $80,630
Nevada $61,140 $35,570 $79,450
New York $60,990 $38,800 $96,400
Ohio $60,630 $35,760 $81,360
Oklahoma $60,110 $37,300 $79,260
Oregon $63,440 $42,540 $102,630
Pennsylvania $61,280 $38,210 $88,170
Rhode Island $77,210 $47,400 $98,520
South Carolina $49,250 $30,790 $94,800
South Dakota $47,430 $36,900 $61,860
Tennessee $55,200 $23,410 $126,110
Texas $49,580 $30,510 $88,590
Utah $47,760 $32,050 $96,770
Virginia $63,310 $38,670 $125,820
Vermont $60,920 $37,020 $96,710
Washington $62,660 $48,310 $80,670
Wisconsin $61,410 $47,730 $79,890
West Virginia $40,320 $29,250 $79,890
Wyoming $47,760 $29,400 $78,210

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. 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.

Community Health Workers

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
Wausau, WI $62,760
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN $62,210
Bend-Redmond, OR $62,130
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $61,180
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $61,000
Carson City, NV $60,610
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $60,300
St. George, UT $59,280
Mount Vernon-Anacortes, WA $56,600
Bismarck, ND $56,160

Health Education Specialists

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $103,690
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA $100,300
Memphis, TN-MS-AR $98,950
Shreveport-Bossier City, LA $91,510
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL $86,150
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $81,630
Danbury, CT $78,390
Providence-Warwick, RI-MA $77,460
Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL $77,280
Santa Rosa, CA $76,820

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 WorkplaceMedian Salary
Scientific Research and Development Services $77,180
Medical and Diagnostic Labs$72,160
Dentist’s Offices$61,980
Home Health Care Services$61,030
Skilled Nursing Facilities$59,870
Health Education Specialist WorkplaceMedian Salary
Federal Executive Branch $106,490
Merchant Wholesalers$116,400
Medical and Diagnostic Labs$86,150
Scientific Research and Development Services$76,360
Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents and Brokers$107,640

Job Outlook

Roles for health educators and community health workers are on the rise. The BLS predicts a 12 percent increase in jobs in both fields by 2031, largely stemming from a focus on healthier lifestyles after the pandemic, which should increase the number of jobs.

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

  • California
  • Texas
  • Ohio
  • Washington
  • New York

Top States for Health Education Specialists

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Georgia

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.”

Stay Connected

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.

stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing writer

author default

With professional insight from:
Jessica Retzlaff
Executive Director, Health Care Education Association (HCEA)