Health Educators - What They Do
Health educators work to encourage healthy lifestyles and wellness through educating individuals and communities about behaviors that can prevent diseases, injuries, and other health problems.
Health educators attempt to prevent illnesses by informing and educating individuals and communities about health-related topics, such as proper nutrition, the importance of exercise, how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, and the habits and behaviors necessary to avoid illness. They begin by assessing the needs of their audience, which includes determining the appropriate topics to cover. For example, they may hold programs on self-examination for breast cancer to women or may teach classes on the effects of binge drinking to college students. Health educators must take the cultural norms of their audience into account. For example, programs targeted at the elderly need to be different from those aimed at a college-aged population.
After assessing their audiences' needs, health educators must decide how to meet those needs. Health educators have a lot of options in putting together programs. They may organize an event, such as a lecture, class, demonstration or health screening, or they may develop educational material, such as a video, pamphlet or brochure. Often, these tasks require working with other people in a team or on a committee. Health educators must plan programs that are consistent with the goals and objectives of their employers. For example, many nonprofit organizations educate the public about one disease or health topic, and, therefore, limit the programs they issue.
Next, health educators need to implement their proposed plan. This may require locating funding by applying for grants, writing curriculums for classes, or creating materials that would be made available to the public. Also, programs may require dealing with logistical tasks, such as finding speakers or locations for the event.
Generally, after a program is presented, health educators evaluate its success. Methods of evaluation vary based on the program in question. For example, they may ask participants to provide feedback using a survey about the program. Through evaluation, health educators can improve plans for the future by learning from mistakes and capitalizing on strengths.
Although programming is a large part of their job, health educators also serve as a resource on health topics. This may include locating services, reference material, and other resources and referring individuals or groups to organizations or medical professionals.
Even though all health educators share the same overarching goal, their duties can vary depending on where they work. Most health educators work in medical care settings, colleges and universities, schools, public health departments, nonprofit organizations, and private business.
Within medical care facilities, health educators tend to work one-on-one with patients and their families. In this setting, a health educator’s goal is to educate individual patients on their diagnosis and how that may change or affect their lifestyle. To this end, they may explain the necessary procedures or surgeries as well as how patients will need to alter their lifestyles to manage their illness or return to full health. They may also direct patients to outside resources, such as support groups, home health agencies, or social services. Often, health educators work closely with physicians, nurses, and other staff to create educational programs or materials, such as brochures, Web sites, and classes. In some cases, health educators train hospital staff about how to better interact with patients.
Health educators in colleges and universities work primarily with students. Generally, these educators create programs on topics that affect young adults, such as sexual activity, smoking, and alcohol. They may need to alter their teaching methods to attract audiences to their events. For example, health educators might show a popular movie followed by a discussion or hold programs in dormitories or cafeterias. They may teach courses for credit or give lectures on health-related topics. Often, they train students as peer educators to lead their own programs.
Health educators in schools are typically employed in secondary schools, where they may teach health class. They develop lesson plans that are relevant and age appropriate to their students. Educators may need to cover sensitive topics, such as sexually transmitted diseases or alcohol and drug abuse and may also teach another subject concurrently, such as science or physical education. Sometimes, they may develop the health education curriculum for the school or for the entire school district.
Heath educators in public health are employed primarily by State and local departments of public health and administer State-mandated programs. They also develop educational materials for use by other public health officials. During an emergency, health educators may be responsible for disseminating information to both the media and the public. They work closely with nonprofit organizations to help them get the resources they need, such as funding. Educators often serve as members of statewide councils or national committees on topics such as aging. As part of this work, they inform other professionals in changes to health policy.
In nonprofits, which may be referred to community health organizations, health educators provide the public with information related to health and educate people about the resources available to help people in the community. While some organizations target a particular audience, others educate the community regarding one disease or health issue. Therefore, health educators may be limited in either the topics they cover, the populations they serve, or both. Work in this setting may include creating print-based material for distribution to the community, often in conjunction with organizing lectures, health screenings, and activities related to increasing health awareness. Health educators may also form and lead community coalitions to address public health issues ranging from water quality to healthy food availability or access to safe exercise areas. They can work to set policy that will improve public health. Examples include working to advance legislation for prohibition of smoking in public areas and limitation of junk food in vending machines in schools.
When working in private businesses, health educators create programs to inform its employees and that fit into workers' schedules by arranging lunchtime speakers or daylong health screenings so that workers may come when attendance is convenient. Educators in these business settings must align their work with the overall goals of their employers.
Health educators work in various environments based on the industry in which they are employed. In public health, nonprofit organizations, corporations and businesses, colleges and universities, and medical care settings, they primarily work in offices. However, they may spend a lot of time away from the office implementing and attending programs, meeting with community organizers, speaking with patients, or teaching classes. Health educators in schools spend the majority of their day in classrooms.
Health educators generally work 40-hour weeks. When programs, events, or meetings are scheduled, however, they may need to work evenings or weekends.
Entry-level health educator positions generally require a bachelor's degree from a health education program. These programs teach students the theories and methods of health education and develop the skills necessary to implement health education programs. Courses in psychology, human development, and a foreign language are helpful, and experience gained through an internship or other volunteer opportunities can make applicants more appealing to employers.
Graduate programs in health education are often offered under titles such as community health education, school health education, public health education, or health promotion. These programs lead to a Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Education, or a Master of Public Health degree. Many students pursue a master's in health education after majoring in or working in a related field, such as nursing or psychology. A master's degree is required for most health educator positions in public health.
Some employers may require and pay for educators to take continuing education courses to keep their skills up to date.
Health educators spend much of their time working with people and must be comfortable working with both individuals and groups. They need to be good communicators and comfortable speaking in public as they may need to teach classes or give presentations. Health educators often work with diverse populations, so they must be sensitive to cultural differences and open to working with people of varied backgrounds. Health educators often create new programs or materials, so they should be creative and skilled writers.