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Health Education Profession

The HIV/STD/Viral Hepatitis Prevention Program at the Utah Department of Health
The history of health education in the United States dates back to the late 19th century with the establishment of the first academic programs preparing school health educators (Allegrante et al., 2004). Interest in quality assurance and the development of standards for professional preparation of health educators emerged in the 1940s. Over the next several decades, professional associations produced guidelines for preparing health educators and accreditation efforts were introduced. Yet it was not until the 1970s that health education began evolving as a true profession in terms of sociological perspective (Livingood & Auld, 2004). In addition to defining a body of literature, efforts were initiated to promulgate a health education code of ethics, a skill-based set of competencies, rigorous systems for quality assurance, and a health education credentialing system.

Today some 250 academic programs in colleges and universities prepare health educators at the undergraduate and graduate levels leading to baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral degrees ( AAHE, 2005 ). A profession-wide code of ethics has been endorsed and disseminated by the leading health education professional associations (CNHEO, 1999). Behavioral and social science research has provided a strong theoretical base for health education interventions, and professional associations have demonstrated that they can collaborate in defining and preparing health educators for contemporary workplace demands. According to NCHEC, more than 12,000 professionals have received the designation Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines health educators (SOC 21-1091.00) as those who promote, maintain, and improve individual and community health by assisting individuals and communities to adopt healthy behaviors, collect and analyze data to identify community needs prior to planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating programs designed to encourage healthy lifestyles, policies and environments. They may also serve as a resource to assist individuals, other professionals, or the community, and may administer fiscal resources for health education programs. http://www.bls.gov/soc/soc_f1j1.htm

According to the BLS:

  • 5 out of 10 health educators work in health care and social assistance and an additional 2 out of 10 work in State and local government.
  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for entry level jobs, but many employers prefer to hire workers with a master's degree.
  • Rapid job growth is expected, but the relatively small number of jobs in this occupation will limit the num­ber of job openings.

Health educators work to encourage healthy lifestyles and well­ness through educating individuals and communities about be­haviors that promote healthy living and prevent diseases and other health problems.

Major Keith Palm providing health education at Camp Victory in Iraq

They 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 which topics to cover and how to best present the information. For example, they may hold programs on self-examinations for breast cancer to women who are at higher risk 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 drastically different from those aimed at a college-aged population.

For more information about the Health Education profession see the article in the Summer 2007 edition of the BLS Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Health Educators Working for Wellness, http://www.nchec.org/forms/OOQ_health_educators.pdf (pdf)

Long-standing questions about what health educators do in practice eventually led to the first Role Delineation Project in the 1970s. Prior investigations as well as the 2004 Competency Update Project (CUP) research involved defining the health educator's role by delineating the competencies critical to success in that role. A competency-based approach helped to provide a framework of the skills and abilities needed to perform in a health educator position.

Unlike most health professions, health education conducted a role delineation process (Henderson & McIntosh, 1981; Cleary, 1997) that eventually resulted in verified competencies for health education practice (NCHEC, 1985). In 1978, the First Bethesda Conference assembled health educators from all practice settings to begin the process of defining and verifying the role of health educators. That same year, the National Center for Health Education undertook the landmark Role Delineation Project (US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1978). The role of the entry-level health education specialist was defined during the years 1978 to 1981. The research showed there were commonalities among all entry-level health educators regardless of setting. This became the basis for the health educator credentialing process. In 1985, A Framework for the Development of Competency-Based Curricula for Entry-Level Health Educators was published. The document provided a frame of reference for developing health education curricula.