What Does a Health Educator Do?
The general public’s initial reaction whenever a rapidly emerging disease or virulent outbreak begins to occupy the news cycle can often be characterized best as “fearful” or “panicked”. Using the current Ebola crisis in West Africa as an example, figures in the media have the tendency to lend their hand to the dramatic, anxious actions of the general populace. Often, misinformation is spread nearly as quickly as the health concern in question. In Ebola’s case, the panic has largely revolved around the decision to relocate two Americans afflicted with the virus back to the U.S. for treatment. While its symptoms are certainly grisly, its virulence depends on direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected patient. The virus demands absolute diligence to keep contained, of course, but for the general public in a country with such a well-established healthcare system as that in America, there’s a very, very small chance of even another patient besides those in treatment contracting the disease.
Thankfully, some of the uproar has been calmed by dedicated campaigns to educate the public on the nature of the Ebola virus. However, because of the initial misinformation, there’s still a large contingent of (largely unnecessarily) concerned Americans around the country.
While perhaps on a larger scale than most health education programs, this example serves to illustrate the fundamental importance of skilled, knowledgeable health educators in communities across the nation. As our understanding of medicine evolves, it’s essential that the newest findings – both as they apply to medical environments and everyday life – are communicated effectively to the public, informing their behavior and encouraging healthy lifestyles. Health education can also be an effective means of defeating stigma attached to certain ailments; as during the HIV epidemic, for example, or in the current cultural struggle with mental illness.
The Challenge of Health Educators
But how do health educators actually go about driving public awareness of everything from basic anatomy and physiology to the most recent discoveries in nutrition? In a variety of ways.
A health educator’s central job is to act as a liaison between the world of medicine and a broader, public audience. This often involves the creation of educational materials and programs that they use to circulate health information. Programs like these can take the form of dedicated classes, presentations, and even creative forms like a theater production or art exhibit – whatever suits the audience best and effectively relays health information. Health educators then assess the program’s efficacy by analyzing data on the behavior they were seeking to alter, adjusting their materials as needed.
Health educators can be found in a wide variety of different job settings, including health care facilities, public health departments, universities, and other nonprofits. Occasionally, corporations will even have a dedicated health educator to help create programs that keep employees healthy, reducing insurance costs and, typically, increasing productivity. On the other hand, working in a hospital or other facility, a health educator might work directly with patients to help them understand their diagnosis and properly manage any ailments. They also function as medical consultants, in many ways, helping patients discover and pursue new treatment options based on information provided by doctors. They might also work to create outreach programs on behalf of the hospital, organizing blood pressure checks and other classes designed to help promote community health.
In some cases, Universities conduct or make use of focused programs that deal with issues specific to a young adult audience – alcohol use being one of the primary concerns. Health educators in this setting coordinate with leaders in the student body and prominent university figures to fulfill their mission and create programs that drive action.
In a broader setting, as in a department of public health, educators can even drive the messaging of the government’s ongoing campaigns to promote wellness. Depending on the scale of their appointment, they may even shape a national or state campaign, creating messaging and materials to circulate necessary information. Some health educators are directly involved in the creation of public health policy, as well.
As a result, a working understanding of medical principles is certainly a helpful trait to anyone interested in pursuing a career in this field. Beyond that, however, any aspiring health educator needs to be able to communicate effectively and create messaging that encourages healthy living. Developing the program isn’t enough, though. Health educators need a strong grasp of analytical processes to assess and refine their programs to better suit the challenge at hand. Because of these varying skills and the variety of settings in which they can be applied, health education can be a very rewarding and exciting career.
If you’re interested in exploring the world of health education, click here to learn more about the online Master of Health Science offered by Saint Francis University. The program offers a specialty track in health education for those looking to move into the field.