Public Health Education and Public Health Promotion: Where Do You Fit In?

Published on: Nov 5, 2023

When you look at all the sub-fields that comprise public health, it’s clear that it’s a very broad field. Few other disciplines could encompass everything from diseases like ebola to mental health issues like anxiety levels of teenagers to sexual health topics. Two themes are undercurrents of all these diverse topics: public health education and public health promotion. Public health education and promotion are closely tied, as individuals who work in both fields are attempting to improve health and increase the well-being of communities. The American Public Health Association (APHA) considers the two fields so connected that their member section for these topics is combined1.

At their core, the fields of public health education and promotion are designed to disseminate knowledge and foster behavioral changes to encourage healthy behaviors and prevent diseases. The ultimate goal of each is to empower individuals and communities to make informed decisions that positively impact their health, both individually and collectively. This includes initiatives such as promoting physical activity, healthy eating habits, tobacco cessation, and safe sexual practices. Strategies include social marketing campaigns, community-based interventions, and policy advocacy to create environments that support these positive behaviors.

This article will outline the importance of public health education and promotion, career options for this area of public health, and the key skills required to work in these fields.

What are people employed in these fields trying to do?

Public health education and public health promotion are subsets of public health that try to promote health and well-being, prevent disease and disability, and prevent premature death through education meant to cause behavior change. Instead of forcing change, these fields try to empower individuals with the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to make informed health decisions. For any health topic, people working in these areas are trying to raise awareness about the health issue, and explain both prevention strategies and healthy lifestyle practices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list over 25 intervention topics that are all designed to “promote population health and well-being in an effort to increase healthy life expectancy, improve quality of life, increase productivity, and reduce health care costs.”2

Public health education efforts generally focus on preventing diseases through awareness and education campaigns about topics like nutrition and vaccinations, implementing screening programs, and promoting lifestyle modifications. 

Public health education professionals encourage individuals to become active participants in health promotion efforts, rather than mandating or imposing change. The goal is to empower individuals to take proactive steps in improving their own health, and preventing diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and infectious diseases at a community level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a Health People 2030 list of health topics and associated goals for improving community health that shows the breadth of health promotion topics3.

Many people work as public health educators and engage with their local communities to teach others about healthy lifestyles. Public health promotion complements these efforts by attempting to create change on the individual, community, and systemic levels, with the overall goal of improving health behaviors of individuals as well as creating better systems and environments that support and facilitate healthy behaviors.

Community Health Education

Community health is often grouped with health promotion, however there are nuanced differences between the two fields. We have an in-depth guide on the role of community health workers and what a career as a community health worker might look like. Community health workers are individuals who typically work in healthcare settings and bridge the gap between medical professionals and the patients they serve through a combination of specific training and local knowledge. Both community health workers and health education specialists are ideal candidates to take the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) exam. This exam is the pre-eminent form of health education credentialing, beyond the bachelor or master degree in public health.

Jobs and Career Prospects

Some of this explanation might sound overly theoretical, so let’s dig into a few examples. When we say encouraging healthy behaviors and trying to change structures to ones that promote health, what does that actually mean? It means developing specific interventions (the public health term for a program meant to address a health issue) and policies that will address health inequities and disparities, reduce risk factors for diseases and health issues, and promote healthy behaviors and lifestyles. These are designed to help individual people, but also society at large by the cumulative effect of having more healthy people in a community. 

One of the most common jobs for someone with a public health degree who wants to work in health education and promotion is health education specialist. The Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) has a video that explains this role in depth. The terms health educator and health education specialist are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, as both roles have the premise of teaching people how to improve their own health. 

What Can You Do As A Public Health Educator

One of the biggest benefits of getting a public health degree with a focus in public health education and promotion is that you’ll learn the skills needed that can be applied to any setting or health topic. Unlike fields where you get pigeon-holed by your degree, you’ll have the option to start your career with a focus on mental health, pivot to disease control (that is, a bigger focus on stalling or preventing the spread of an infectious disease within a community), then pivot again to global health issues. 

The most obvious setting for a public health educator is to work in a school developing and delivering content to students. This can span all ages and topics, but may be focused on topics like nutrition or sexual health. They may also work in the administration of a school or distract to plan public health education programs. This role also exists for colleges and universities, with topics like substance abuse and mental health needs at the forefront. Some universities may employ health education specialists to train students in peer counseling or work on advocacy issues with students. 

Health educators can also work in healthcare settings working directly with patients and on community outreach. This role can be based on the particular needs of a given department within a healthcare organization like working on nutrition programming, or it can be more outwardly community-focused. This might look like organizing health fairs, leading presentations on healthy lifestyles, or promoting things like immunizations and emergency preparedness.

New Areas of Focus for Public Health Education

One of the fascinating things about public health is that it’s constantly changing: in the 1980s, you might have worked in HIV/AIDs community outreach. In the early 2000s, you might have worked on tobacco control (the public health term for education related to the health problems associated with tobacco as well as advocacy efforts related to increasing tobacco legislation), and now in 2023 you might work on tertiary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. To see how far public health has come, the CDC developed a summary of 10 major achievements over the decade of 2000 to 20104

Two emerging themes of public health that may see more traction in the coming decade are health equity and health communication. As part of Healthy People 2030, the CDC defines health equity as “ “the attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.”5 People working in public health education and promotion are working to address health disparities by ensuring equitable access to healthcare services and resources, and by promoting evidence-based interventions to achieve improved health for all.

Strategies to do this include developing culturally sensitive interventions, increasing community engagement, and advocating for policies to improve health outcomes for marginalized populations.

Health communication is similarly broad in that it’s an overarching concept that can be tailored to a particular topic or disease. Clear and concise messaging, tailored to the target audience, is essential for raising awareness, changing behaviors, and promoting health. Utilizing various channels such as social media, traditional media, and community outreach, public health professionals disseminate information and engage with diverse communities.

Skills for Working in Public Health Education and Promotion

There are a variety of skills that you would need to pursue any career in public health to set yourself up for success, however we will dig into the specific ones that you’ll need for health education and health promotion here. The skills you need to work in health education and promotion will be covered through an accredited public health degree program6. Some will be part of the standard MPH curriculum offered to all students, while others will be part of a concentration in health promotion.

These include the following topics:

  • Health Education and Promotion Theories: A comprehensive overview of public health principles, theories, and evidence-based practices is crucial. You’ll learn about health promotion strategies, behavior change models, program planning and evaluation, and health communication techniques.

  • Community Engagement Strategies: Building trust and fostering collaborative relationships with communities is essential for effective public health education and promotion. Learning skills in community assessment, cultural competence, and how to work with diverse populations is necessary to ensure interventions are tailored to the specific needs of a given community.

  • Health Communication: Strong communication skills, both verbal and written, are vital for conveying health information to different audiences effectively. Public health professionals need to tailor messaging to particular audiences to make the messaging effective, use relevant channels and means of communication, and employ persuasive techniques to increase the likelihood of influencing behavior change. Advocacy skills are also crucial for promoting policy changes and addressing health disparities to improve health equity. 

  • Program Planning and Evaluation: Designing and implementing effective health education and promotion programs require skills in program planning, evaluation, and intervention monitoring. Public health professionals must be able to assess community needs, set measurable objectives and goals, develop an implementation plan, and evaluate program outcomes. These actions help ensure effectiveness and sustainability.

  • Data Analysis and Research Skills: Data-driven decision-making is essential to successful health education and promotion campaigns as collecting data on program effectiveness is a key tactic to ensuring that programs are having the intended impact. Proficiency in data collection, analysis, and interpretation is essential for identifying individual and community needs, measuring program impact, and informing evidence-based interventions.

How To Start Your Public Health Education Career

Even as a student, there are ways you can gain exposure to these fields by working as an intern. This gives you the opportunity to see what it would be like to work as a public health educator or for a community health organization before making the full commitment following graduation. As much as possible, it’s a good idea to try to gain exposure to a wide variety of types of organizations and topics to make yourself more marketable as an applicant down the road. If you know far enough in advance that you’d like to pursue an MPH, completing a public health related internship could make you a stronger applicant to the admissions department.

What’s Next?

Click here to review our list of MPH programs and get started on your own health promotion and education career!

About the Author

Written by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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