Guide to College Majors in Health Promotion & Education

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
--Constitution of the World Health Organization

What is Health Promotion?

The discipline of health promotion and education, also called wellness studies, aspires to educate communities in the skills needed to maintain personal health. As medical costs skyrocket, it has become clear that the health of individual Americans has an effect on society as a whole. The cost of treating preventable conditions is passed on to everyone via increased taxes and health insurance premiums. Health promotion and education professionals emphasize improvements in diet, exercise, behavior and even attitudes.

This process may seem simplistic, but students who take on health education as a career become familiar with the intricacies of physical health and the challenges of motivating a community or society toward awareness of health issues.

What Does a Health Promoter and Educator do?

Health educators promote awareness of health issues as diverse as:

  • Obstetrics
  • Tobacco prevention
  • HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention
  • Dental disease prevention
  • Bone disease prevention
  • Heart disease prevention
  • Teenage pregnancy prevention
  • Maternal and child health
  • Emergency medical practices
  • Immunizations

Health promoters and educators often work with the community. Health education and promotion programs generally focus on the health and well-being of individuals, instead of addressing theory or policy. The fields of study that serve as the foundation for health promotion and education include:

  • Biology
  • Health communication
  • Human development
  • Public health
  • Health services
  • Health psychology

Inspiring Healthy Decisions

Motivating a society to actively encourage good health is no small task; Americans in particular are fond of junk food, sedentary jobs and low-key leisure activities. Improving public health takes legions of professional health educators working in every possible venue from schools to mass media. This career path includes such responsibilities as:

  • Organizing and motivating the community to work toward the common goal of overcoming health issues.
  • Utilizing modern technology and up-to-date information to help entire communities promote the health of each individual.
  • Organizing and implementing programs that promote healthy living.
  • Studying, maintaining and evaluating public programs that promote healthy living.
  • Organizing groups and coalitions that advocate health awareness in government and enact or change policies to this end.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Health Promoter?

Health education is a rigorous profession. Before embarking upon any course of study, make sure that this field is right for you. This field requires intensive study; it is a combination of science and social work.

You will facilitate and organize groups of people to achieve a common goal. You will work with issues of biological, psychological, social, physical, and medical natures. As a health promoter and educator, you will develop and implement strategies for improving our collective habits, attitudes, and behaviors. Such strategies demand a detailed understanding of a society's approach to diet, exercise, and other habits.

Personal Qualities of Successful Health Education and Promotion Professionals

When you embark upon a degree path as specialized as health promotion and education, you should consider whether your personal qualities are suited for this work. Some important questions to ask yourself are:

  • Do I like working with people?
  • Do I work well with others in a collaborative manner for a single purpose?
  • Am I interested in how we use and care for our bodies?
  • Am I interested in working as an educator?
  • Am I willing and able to embark on a specialized field of study?
  • Would I consider myself a "people person?"
  • Do I care if people are healthy?
  • Am I concerned about the eating habits in my society?
  • Am I aware of my own diet and exercise habits?

If you answered yes to the above questions, you should be a good fit for this challenging, rewarding career.

Key Skills of Certified Health Education Specialists

Successful health promoters and educators possess great leadership abilities. These qualities emerge during a student's education, especially when they volunteer to be class leaders, peer tutors, or assistants to instructors. Students with innate leadership abilities will be naturally professional, caring, and capable of solving problems. Professional health educators develop many of the following skills during their degree programs:

  • Assess individual and community needs. Health educators must be careful not to impose their own agenda on a community without first understanding the real wishes of its residents. Otherwise, their initiatives will meet with significant resistance. Skilled educators can integrate surveys and polls into the first phase of a long-term program to test the waters for future outreach.
  • Plan and develop health education programs. Based on professional assessments, health educators work in teams to strategize long-term rollouts of their programs. By prioritizing program elements based on budgets and public demand, effective educators build awareness of their program long before providing key services in target areas.
  • Implement health education programs. After developing core strategies and building public demand, health educators must hit the streets to deliver their messages. Depending on the kind of program, educators may use a variety of mass media and direct client contact to execute their plans.
  • Manage programs and personnel. Skilled health education professionals oversee teams of specialists that work together to deliver program services directly to target communities. Team leaders often recruit publicists, community organizers, social workers, teachers, clergy, and other key people to execute successful programs. Juggling the schedules of these team members and providing them with resources becomes the central focus of the project manager.
  • Evaluate health education programs. To justify continued funding and to gauge the effectiveness of programs, health educators develop a set of metrics they can use to quantify program results. Much like the process of evaluating customer service in a private business, program leaders must act quickly if programs fail to meet the objectives of the original plan.
  • Act to change government policy. Health education and promotion does not just take place in neighborhoods and in hospitals. Many health educators participate in grassroots lobbying efforts to inform lawmakers of the needs of their consitutents and the effects of health care legislation. Professional health educators meet with politicians, organize rallies, and inform voters about changes to health care policies.
  • Build coalitions. Even experienced health educators can have little impact without the support of community leaders and influencers. By involving community organizations, hospitals, politicians, research foundations, and other supporters, health educators can leverage the power of networks to accelerate the growth of their programs.
  • Identify resources and make referrals. Health education and promotion professionals view themselves as part of a tight network of people committed to wellness in their community. During the course of developing or administering programs, team leaders and staff members often encounter individuals who require more direct medical attention. Educators prepare their teams to refer such people to qualified doctors or treatment centers, especially when dealing with cases of abuse, alcoholism, or chronic illness.
  • Develop audio, visual, and print materials. Though many health education programs focus on building strong presences in a community, health educators develop support materials to draw more people to live events and to support their overall learning objective. Some health educators rely on experienced production companies and ad agencies to develop multimedia campaigns. Other agencies and education specialists develop these materials in-house, using new technologies to save money and time.
  • Mobilize communities for action. The most successful health education programs empower community residents to take charge of their own lives long after the end of the campaign. Most professionals develop timelines for programs with a fixed end date to appeal to funding sources that might be reluctant to support open-ended efforts. Therefore, educators rely on community leaders to help take charge and keep the energy of the program building in local areas even after the professionals have moved on to new projects.
  • Train volunteers. Many health education programs, especially those that involve large, live events, rely on the "sweat equity" of community volunteers. These supporters come from all walks of life. Some are skilled professionals that lend targeted expertise to areas like construction or event production. Most volunteers simply want to help in any way possible. Program coordinators must anticipate training volunteers to learn essential skills to make the education program a success. Without effective training and supervision, volunteers can eat into time and resources meant to help community members.
  • Conduct research. Though many health education programs promote an existing agenda, they also present an opportunity to conduct important research into medical conditions in targeted communities. Health educators can often find additional funding for their programs by piggybacking their education efforts with research programs that can measure the current state of community health. As a result, researchers can return to the communities and more effectively measure the impact of the educational programs. Positive results often encourage educators and funders to replicate the programs in other target areas.
  • Write grant applications. Health educators rely on corporate backers, on government agencies, and on private foundations to provide the funding for their programs. Because competition for funding can be fierce, many health education professionals learn how to write effective grant applications. The strongest applications project clear results that connect directly to the missions of the companies and organizations funding the projects. Program directors with strong track records of meeting goals and providing opportunities for positive publicity often earn the largest funding awards.
  • Write and present scholarly papers. Though health educators spend much of their time working with members of their target populations, experienced professionals understand the importance of reporting results back to the medical community. Therefore, usually as part of the final phase of their programs, team leaders coordinate the research and composition of journal articles and other scholarly papers. These reports remind doctors and other medical professionals of the importance of community outreach and education. They also provide blueprints for other educators to replicate programs to achieve even better results in their own neighborhoods.

Career Education in Health Promotion

Developing the strategies mentioned above can be fulfilling work. Professionals in this field are motivated by their desire to see a community take responsibility for its own well-being. When people understand the factors that affect their physical health, they become empowered to improve their habits and behaviors. In health promotion, knowledge is power.

College degrees in health education take many forms; some have clinical components and others are more focused on marketing, community outreach and policy. Online degree programs in health education have become popular, particularly at the master's level, for working professionals who are ready to move to the next rung of the career ladder. Online schools offer a variety of concentrations in health education, from clinical programs in nurse education to the Doctor of Health Education degree, which prepares the graduate to perform influential work at the top tier of the field.

Associate Degrees in Health Education

Two-year associate degree programs prepare many students to launch themselves straight into the job market. Associate of Applied Science programs provide foundational science knowledge and basic experience in health education. Graduates often begin their first full-time jobs in clinical, corporate, or community settings. AAS credits are often transferable to bachelor's degree programs, which may be required for career mobility after the student has gotten his or her foot in the door.

An associate degree in health education might cover topics such as:

  • How to develop a fitness program
  • How to assess fitness
  • Program administration
  • Sexuality education
  • Drug education
  • Human health and wellness
  • Nutrition

Associate degree programs generally require applicants to hold a high school diploma or GED equivalent, and to have earned at least a 2.0 GPA in lower-level math and science courses.

Bachelor's Degrees in Health Education

Coursework in a four-year bachelor's degree program will be more in-depth and rigorous than that of an associate's degree program. It will prepare students for a wider variety of occupations upon graduation. The coursework develops skills beyond the foundational courses. The elements of biology, psychology, and social studies will be absorbed early in the program. More specialized courses may include such subjects as:

  • Skills in writing and oral presentations
  • Health and social theory courses
  • Computer technology
  • Developing leadership skills

Bachelor's degree programs are designed to produce skilled and competent professionals. Therefore, the curriculum includes general education courses in the humanities and social sciences as well as specialist knowledge. Students must understand current trends in diet and health as well as traditional best practices. Students will learn about the most urgent health concerns, the factors that cause those current issues, and effective solutions that may be implemented.

Generally, a B.A. in Health Promotion will not require practical assessments and fieldwork. Institutions that offer degrees in health promotion and education also offer closely related degrees such as health studies, healthcare law and ethics, or health services management.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Health Promotion?

The particulars of this career depend on your chosen specialty. Many positions require professionals to perform some or all of the following tasks:

  • Planning health education activities
  • Conducting workshops on health concerns
  • Identifying target populations
  • Developing public media campaigns
  • Conducting pre-program and post-program surveys
  • Providing screening services for individuals
  • Performing follow-up evaluations

Non-Profits
Large organizations, such as the American Cancer Society or the American Diabetes Association, rely on health promotion and education graduates to pursue organizational missions. Non-profits generally employ educators to help design programs and strategies, give presentations on health awareness to communities, train volunteers, raise funds, and organize special events.

Clinical Settings
There is plenty of career crossover between health education and clinical practice, and many graduates choose to supplement their health education degree with clinical training. This is useful for community outreach programs that combine health education with basic services such as immunizations, free checkups, blood tests and counseling.

Corporate Organizations
Health educators enjoy a variety of opportunities in the corporate sector. Many corporations want to improve the health awareness of their employees. New research shows that health promotion programs enhance employee attitudes, reduce absenteeism, and lower stress. All these factors make for a better and healthier working environment while lowering healthcare costs.

Large, in-house programs employ health educators, while smaller companies often hire consultants for temporary workshops. Aside from providing general practice guidelines that assist the corporate community in improving its diet and exercise behavior, these programs often include individual needs assessments. This process determines what each worker can change to improve their stress management, weight management, recreation, or nutrition.

Emergency Medical Field
Health educators can also receive EMS training to become EMTs or paramedics. Some of the jobs available in this realm include work in hospitals, ambulance, fire service, law enforcement and clinical health care. Health education develops skills in public speaking, program planning, evaluation and implementation of strategies. The prevention of illnesses and promotion of health greatly affects emergency care professionals. Health education professionals are continuing to develop a stronger impact in this neighboring field.

Public Schools
Professionals wanting to work directly as educators may look to the public school system. The real work of health promotion begins with altering the perceptions and behavior of youth, for it is during the teen years that many lifelong health habits are formed.

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