When it comes to building a healthy community, the importance of health education cannot be overlooked. Community health workers work with all of a community’s stakeholders – from its citizens to its government, education and health officials – to improve health and well-being and ensure access equal to health care.
Why is health education important?
Community health education examines the health of a community as a whole, seeks to identify health issues and trends within a population, and works with stakeholders to find solutions to those concerns.
The importance of health education impacts many areas of well-being within a community, including:
Community health educators work with public health departments, schools, government offices, and even local nonprofit organizations to design educational programs and other resources to meet the specific needs of a community.
“As public health professionals, with the help of community leaders, we strive to ensure the well-being of the community with regard to health education,” said Tany Obenson, clinical faculty member of public health at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “A healthier community is a better community”
Disparities in health care
In addition to providing educational resources and programs to a community, public health educators also ensure that all members of a community have equal access to wellness resources and health services.
“When we consider access to care and its delivery within communities, health equity and social justice go hand in hand. The social determinants of health classify the various ways in which an individual’s identity characteristics and social positions are woven into a web of discrimination,” said Dr. Natalie Rahming, an adjunct health care faculty member at SNHU. “They demonstrate how racism, socio-economic status, gender, and rural/urban conditions have persistently manifested themselves in the unequal distribution of care among distinct groups over many generations.”
According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), common health disparities affecting Americans include:
- Gender disparities in health
- Racial or ethnic disparities in health
- Rural health disparities
- Socioeconomic disparities in health
“A community health worker seeks to abolish or improve health inequities from a social perspective, while other health workers approach it from an individual perspective,” Rahming said. “Both are essential for the advancement of health care.”
Community health education and government policy
The importance of health education also extends to the development of policies and legislation at local, state and national levels, informing and influencing key decisions that impact community health.
From campaigns and legislation to enforce seat belt use and prevent smoking to programs that increase diabetes awareness and prevention, public health workers provide research and advice to inform policy development .
“Consistent with policy work, community health leaders are needed to support the community with prevention strategies, interventions and programs designed to improve disparities in care based on social, economic and environmental factors,” said declared Dr. Toni Clayton, Executive Director of Health Professions at SNHU. “The collaboration of community leaders is essential to form a shared commitment and a results-oriented approach to improving the health of our most vulnerable populations.”
The economic importance of health education
Health education can also boost a community’s economy by reducing healthcare costs and lost productivity due to preventable disease.
Obesity and smoking, for example, cost the United States billions of dollars each year in healthcare costs and lost productivity.
According to the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity (NCCOR), the annual loss of economic productivity due to obesity and related problems is expected to reach $580 billion by 2030 (source NCCOR PDF). The total economic cost of smoking costs the United States more than $300 billion each year, including $156 billion in lost productivity, according to the CDC.
Programs designed to help community members combat these costly health conditions not only improve the health of individuals, but also provide a strong return on investment for communities.
According to the CDC, states with strong tobacco control programs see a $55 return on every $1 investment, primarily from avoiding the costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses. The national cost of delivering the National Diabetes Prevention Program is approximately $500 per participant, which is significantly less than the $9,600 spent annually on diabetes care per patient with type 2 diabetes.
How to Become a Community Health Worker
The goal of a community health worker is to help others, starting with education.
To start your career in community health care, you will usually need a minimum of a high school diploma or an associate’s degree. The work done in public health and community health care differs from other areas of health and impacts communities in different ways, requiring different training and understanding of health care.
“Unlike individual health care delivery, public health studies the systems and trends that collectively impact behaviors and outcomes within a community,” Rahming said. “This research facilitates the identification of needs and the provision of tools to promote disease prevention, individual empowerment and improved well-being that improves the quality of life for all.”
Earning your bachelor’s degree in public health or community health will help you advance your career and better understand your work. In addition to your classroom training, many community health workers must complete on-the-job training. According to BLS, training often covers communication, outreach, and information depending on your specific community health goal.
Public health education: a growing field
As the health, social and economic impacts of community health education continue to grow, so does the field of public health and health promotion.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in community health education is expected to increase 17% by 2030, more than double the average for all occupations.
According to the BLS, workers with a degree in community health education can find opportunities in a wide variety of settings, including:
- Government Agencies and Public Health Services
- Hospitals and healthcare facilities
- Non-profit associations
- Private companies and employee wellness programs
- Schools and colleges
As communities continue to focus more on improving the health and well-being of their citizens, the field of community health education will also continue to expand, the SNHU adjunct faculty said. Michelle Gifford.
“I believe that more and more communities are seeing the benefits of wellness initiatives and receiving positive ratings about them, therefore, community leaders see this not only as a business-driven necessity, but also as something that impacts the well-being and quality of life of their citizens,” Gifford said.
Find out more about SNHU’s Bachelor of Community Health: learn about the courses you’ll take, the skills you’ll learn, and how to request information about the program.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.