Health Educators: Improving the Health and Wellness of Communities

Published on: Nov 21, 2023


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills”, leaving 88% of Americans effectively health illiterate1. Health literacy applies both to understanding health related content and advocating for oneself in health care settings. Because of this grave lack of literacy, health education plays an integral role in our country. Health education is ranked the fourth best education job in the country by U.S. News & World Report, and the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks it one of the fastest growing occupations in the country2. As an increasingly prominent role in the public health workforce, now is a great time to consider becoming a health educator. 

In this article, we will delve into the field of health education by exploring responsibilities, variation by work setting and specialization, opportunities to collaborate with other public health professionals, and challenges and rewards to the role. Finally, we will end with advice for anyone considering a career in the field.

The Basics: Defining Health Education and Core Responsibilities

What is a Health Educator?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health educators, also known as health education specialists, address health and wellness topics by applying behavioral health, policy, or systems-level interventions3. In simple terms, health educators work closely with individuals and communities to teach health and wellness habits that influence behavior change. While most health educators work at the individual or community level, public health educators work on the ground with community members to implement healthy behavior changes, such as incorporating fruits and vegetables into children’s diets, explaining health insurance to people, or traveling overseas to help parents learn how to become advocates and manage their children’s genetic conditions.

What are common responsibilities and duties of a Health Educator?

Health educators play a vital role in the public health field and have a variety of responsibilities. They are continuously participating in community based participatory research by assessing their communities needs and capacities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health education specialists primarily work in three types of settings, and their responsibilities and duties vary by setting4

  • Health Care Facilities:

    Health educators in health care facilities work one-on-one with patients and families on health promotion behaviors such as chronic disease prevention and management, developing health information, or helping connect patients to health services. For example, a health educator working in a hospital may train staff on culturally appropriate practices when working with non-English speaking patients, or organize an event to teach patients how to measure and manage their blood pressure at home. These specialized health educators may be Certified Health Education Specialists, which we will dive into more in the training section.  

  • Nonprofit Organizations:

    Health educators working for nonprofit organizations work at the individual and community-level by creating programs or events to improve the health and wellness of their community. They may conduct community based research to help influence local policy (such as interviewing Medicaid recipients about the importance of their insurance to advocate for sustained Medicaid expansion with policymakers), work with other non-governmental organizations to obtain health-related grant funding, or give presentations to community members about topics such as how to navigate the world of health insurance. 

  • Government Entities:

    Government employed health education specialists work at the community and systemic level to influence population health. They may develop campaigns or educational materials surrounding public health topics such as immunizations, emergency preparedness, or safe driving practices. They may be advocates in local politics regarding public health and serve as the representative voice of their community. Community health educators working for a government agency may also manage grants or grant-funded programs related to public health initiatives. 

  • Collaboration:

    Depending on their setting, public health educators collaborate closely with a variety of stakeholders to complete their daily tasks.

    Collaborators may include: 

    • Healthcare Professionals: Public health educators working in a healthcare facility will collaborate closely with community health workers, social workers, mental health professionals, doctors, and nurses. They are ingrained in their communities as peer health educators, with the goals of understanding the needs, health issues, and capacities of their patients, and then creating health education materials and peer health education programs in collaboration with the patient’s care team to promote healthy behaviors and a generally healthy lifestyle. 

    • Community Leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): Health educators that work for nonprofit organizations may collaborate with leaders in their community, local NGOs, and local advocates. They will work with these stakeholders to gauge community-level health concerns and then create programs, presentations, and campaigns to improve community health and wellness.  

    • Government Workers and Political Advocates: Health education specialists that are employed by the government will often collaborate with governmental entities at all levels (such as health departments, schools, federal agencies, etc). These individuals help advocate for policy changes surrounding health and wellness, develop health education promotion or issue campaigns, or manage grant-funded programs to improve population health outcomes.

What are not common responsibilities and duties of Health Educators?

While health educators are an integral part of the public health workforce, there are many responsibilities that fall outside their purview. If you are interested in becoming a health educator, it is important to understand these limitations. 

  • Health educators do not provide any clinical services, such as prescribing medications, performing procedures, or diagnosing illnesses. 

  • They may help connect an individual to health services, but they do not attend the doctors appointments or represent the patients. 

  • They do not have a caseload of patients that they follow throughout their hospital stay or treatment, like case managers or community health workers do.

Digging Deeper: Role Definition, Challenges, and Workforce Trends

What challenges do Health Educators face on a daily basis?

Health educators face a range of challenges on a daily basis, including:

  • Training:

    Community health education is a role that is constantly evolving to meet changing public health priorities. Health educators are often tasked with both changing individual people’s habits and also impacting the broader health of their communities. Health educators are expected to understand systems thinking while also plan programming that can be tailored to individual people, which is a hard mindset to balance. Training in systems thinking, change management, and community engagement is key to being a successful health educator, and studies have found that training has not always kept up with the shifting demands of health educators5

  • Limited Resources:

    Health educators are often tasked with creating programs, educational materials, and campaigns to address public health concerns. For peer educators working at hospitals or nonprofit organizations, resources are often sparse or limited, forcing health educators to be creative with their tactics.

How are Health Educator jobs changing?

A paper published by the National Institute of Health referred to health educators as ‘professional chameleons’ because of evolving public health needs and community priorities. Healthcare is becoming increasingly complex in our country. More individuals are being diagnosed with chronic conditions and comorbidities, and health technology and pharmaceuticals are becoming more advanced and expensive6. Since 88% of Americans are unable to understand health and medical information, the need for health educators is skyrocketing.

The health education field is growing at a faster rate than most other fields due to the realized importance and requisite purpose of the role2. Hospitals and nonprofits are hiring more health educators to help individuals navigate their individual diagnoses and the broader world of healthcare. With the field bursting with job applications, now is a great time to explore a career in health education.

What training is needed to become a Health Educator?

  • Formal Training/Certifications:

    Most health education specialists need at least a bachelors degree in a health-related field such as health education, health science, or health promotion. While advanced degrees are offered in health education, they are not required for most roles. Some employers will prefer or require individuals to be certified by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, which offers a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) certification and a Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) certification. Take a look at job descriptions for positions you are interested in to see what formal training is required. 

  • Skills:

    Soft skills like communication, problem-solving, empathy, teamwork, and motivational interviewing, and hard skills like teaching experience, being bilingual, research and writing experience, and health literacy are desirable for folks going into health education.

Advice for those considering a career as a Health Educator

If you are interested in becoming a health educator, here are some tips and suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Utilize Job Descriptions:

    Because there is a lot of variation in health educator roles, take a look at health education job descriptions in sectors and environments that interest you. Look at the qualifications and preferred experiences to see how you can prepare to be the best candidate possible. For example, if the role wants one year of clinical experience, see if you can shadow a health educator at your local hospital. If the position prefers a Mandarin or Spanish speaker, start taking lessons on Duolingo or a local community college. 

  • Network:

    We know that networking is an integral part of professional life nowadays. Reach out to folks on LinkedIn and in your community that have job descriptions or experiences that interest you. Networking can introduce you to new opportunities and open doors, which enables you to have a greater impact as a health educator and in your public health career. The Society for Public Health Education is a community for health educators and health promotion specialists. Consider becoming a member to connect with other health educators and public health professionals across the nation. Many universities and campuses will also offer networking opportunities for undergraduate students interested in public health, so take advantage of those events.

Health education is a rewarding and impactful career. By understanding the common responsibilities, variations, challenges, training, and advice for aspiring health educators, you can join the growing field of health education and make a lasting impact on the health and wellness of your community. If health education doesn’t interest you, but you want to pursue a similar career, consider becoming a healthcare social worker or a community health worker.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML, is a program manager at one of the largest academic medical centers in the country. In her current role, she aligns and expands programming with needs identified in the federally mandated community health needs assessment, and deploys organizational resources to support community health improvement. Prior to this role, she was a community health educator for an advocacy nonprofit organization in Philadelphia. She has co-authored multiple research papers on criminal justice and substance abuse, and will be presenting on law enforcement assisted diversion at the 2023 American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Ms. Henkin holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master in Law (ML) from the University of Pennsylvania. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Health Sciences from Ithaca College.

Opinions and information published by the author on are of her own and do not necessarily represent the views of opinions of her employer.

Kerra Henkin headshot

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML

Program Manager

Education: University of Pennsylvania

Knowledge: Community health education

Reviewed 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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