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How Do I Become a Certified Health Education Specialist?

A certified health education specialist wearing a stethoscope and speaking with a community members,

A career as a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) can empower you to improve your community by promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing disease and educating people and whole communities about improving their health.

A chief requirement to become a Certified Health Education Specialist is at least a bachelor’s degree in community health education or a similar field. But first, what is community health, and how is it different from public health?

What is Community Health?

Joi Alexander and the text Joi AlexanderCommunity health focuses on helping people, communities and organizations live healthier by educating them about the possible risk factors for adverse health conditions.

In a nutshell, it’s about making sure people know the risks inherent in their day-to-day behavior and planning, implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of health education programs designed to reduce health disparities in a community and improve the quality of life of community members.

“Community health education is the ability to promote health and prevent disease, disability and premature death by educating and empowering individuals and communities to change their behaviors to improve their overall health and well-being,” said Joi Alexander, community health education adjunct instructor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “The purpose of community health education is to positively influence the health behavior of individuals and communities, as well as the living and working conditions which influence their health."

What is the Difference Between Public Health and Community Health?

Community health isn’t exactly different than public health; rather, it is a sub-discipline of public health, according to Dr. Gail Tudor, associate dean of health professions at SNHU.

Dr. Gail Tudor and the text Dr. Gail Tudor.While community health educators focus on health programs and how individuals’ choices influence their health and their community, the focus of public health is far more reaching.

“Public health professionals try to prevent problems from happening or recurring through promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases, implementing educational programs, recommending policies, administering services and conducting research," Tudor said. "A large part of public health is promoting healthcare equity, quality and accessibility."

Becoming a Certified Health Education Specialist

The path to becoming a CHES includes a mixture of education, experience and successfully passing a certification exam administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) to demonstrate competency of the 7 areas of responsibility incumbent on CHES practitioners.

“The CHES designation after a health educator’s name is one indication of professional competency and commitment to continued professional development,” Alexander said. “In addition, the designation signifies that an individual has met required academic preparation qualifications, has successfully passed a competency-based examination and who satisfies the continuing education requirement to maintain the national credential.”

The CHES designation also created a national standard for the practice of health education. While the certification isn’t necessarily a requirement to work in the field, some employers do require it, and it tells a potential employer much about your knowledge and experience.

“It will tell employers that candidates have received the gold standard in the profession to obtain the knowledge and skills in areas deemed necessary to the field of practice as delineated by the profession,” Alexander said.

What Does a Certified Health Education Specialist Do?

Health educators work to promote community wellness and educate others about how their behaviors impact their health, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). NCHEC lists several roles that health educators fill in their work within communities, health departments, colleges and universities and more, including:

  • Investigators – Health educators have to research the causes of common health concerns to design strategies to address them.

    According to NCHEC, “Certified health education specialists working to create programs in their communities may conduct first-hand research by speaking with individuals in their community to understand their needs, or they may be working alongside other healthcare providers and specialists to evaluate studies which can indicate how new programs can benefit their communities.”
  • Motivators – Health educators have to be passionate about their work to inspire people in their communities to become invested in their health and change behaviors that could negatively impact their health.

    According to NCHEC, “When you have individuals who are passionate about the work they do helping to build up their patients and community, you’ll see a difference in the results.
  • Educators  – A big part of a health education specialist’s job is, of course, educating community members about the effects of their behaviors on their health, from the impact of tobacco use or consulting with school officials about designing a lunch menu.According to NCHEC health educators, “aim to make the world a healthier place one individual at a time. Many health education specialists have a natural desire to teach others, and their passion for this may be manifested in a variety of ways.”
  • Advocates – In addition to educating and motivating, health education specialists also serve as advocates for community members and the health resources they need.

    According to NCHEC, “Many individuals working in health education careers are instrumental in working to evaluate the needs of a community, advocate for essential programming which can benefit their community and work to implement these programs which can impact thousands of people.”

Dr. Pamela Varhol and the textDr. Pamela Varhol, associate dean of healthcare professions at SNHU, said your duties as a health educator can vary depending on the type of organization you work for, but generally fall within the 7 areas of responsibilities covered by the CHES exam. NCHEC lists those responsibilities as:

  1. Assess needs, resources and capacity for health education/promotion.
  2. Plan health education/promotion.
  3. Implement health education/promotion.
  4. Conduct evaluation and research related to health education/promotion.
  5. Administer and manage health education/promotion.
  6. Serves as a health education/promotion resource person.
  7. Communicate, promote and advocate for health and the profession and health education/promotion.

Alexander said one of the most critical responsibilities for a Certified Health Education Specialist is to increase awareness about how certain behaviors impact their health.

“People often lack recognition of habits that may be hazardous to their well-being, such as making poor dietary choices, smoking, neglecting to exercise or overindulging in alcohol, to name a few,” she said. “Their role is to provide people with information about the effects of such behaviors on their health and emphasize the importance of utilizing prevention practices when applicable.”

What is the Importance of Health Education?

Health education is important in a variety of ways. Chronic health conditions - those lasting a year or more and requiring online care - are the leading cause of death in the United States. They're also a leading cause of the country’s annual $3.5 trillion in healthcare costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, many conditions, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, can be heavily influenced by personal behaviors, including:

  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Poor nutrition
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise

Alexander called community health “the intersection of healthcare, economics and social interaction.” In addition to the health impacts on individuals, chronic health conditions impact entire communities economically and economically. For instance, according to the CDC:

  • Heart disease and stroke cause one-third of deaths in the United States and cost the healthcare system $213 billion a year, plus another $137 billion in lost productivity.
  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and preventable types of cancer are caused by preventable risk factors such as smoking, too much exposure to UV light and obesity.
  • More than 34 million people in the United States have diabetes, and another 88 million have pre-diabetes. In 2017, diabetes cost $327 billion to treat.

Of course, not every disease or chronic health condition is preventable. But everyone’s lifestyle choices can affect their risk factors. Health education specialists work to ensure you have the information to inform those choices and know the potential impact of certain behaviors.

“Community health establishes people’s awareness, skills and encourages them to adopt positive attitudes toward their overall health and wellbeing,” Alexander said. “With an aging population, abysmal maternal mortality rates, increased prevalence of many chronic diseases compounded by escalating medical costs, there is a demand for community health educators who develop and implement strategies that address the health needs of the public.”

Community Health Jobs

In 2019, more than 62,000 health education specialists were employed in the United States, making a median salary of $55,220, according to BLS. Government job roles accounted for most of that employment – 24% – and at state or private hospitals – 22%. Through 2028 the field is expected to add more than 7,100 jobs, an increase of 11%, according to BLS.

Health education specialists can also work at many other settings, Tutor said, including community and nonprofit organizations, schools, academia and private businesses.

There is also a wide range of jobs roles and titles that can fall under a health education specialist’s purview, according to NCHEC, including:

  • Clinical Research Specialist
  • Community Outreach Coordinator
  • Community Programs Coordinator
  • Environmental Health Educator
  • Health Department Planner
  • Health Education Specialist Supervisor
  • Infection Prevention Manager
  • Infection Preventionist
  • Nutrition Education Coordinator
  • Patient Care Coordinator
  • Program Director
  • Violence Prevention Program Manager

“From educating individuals or building classroom curriculums or trainings and even organizing large-scale community or state initiatives,” Alexander said, “they work with individuals, families and communities, as well as public and private organizations to create, implement, oversee and analyze programs and strategies that promote health and well-being.”

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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