Health Education

What is Health Education?

One of the most commonly quoted definitions of health education comes from a 1998 publication by the World Health Organization, which describes it as “consciously constructed opportunities for learning involving some form of communication designed to improve health literacy, including improving knowledge, and developing life skills which are conducive to individual and community health.”

Since health itself is large and complex, health education is often subdivided into smaller categories, such as physical health, sexual health, mental health, emotional health, environmental health, and social health.

Purpose of Health Education

The purpose of health education is to provide individuals and communities with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to make the best choices possible to ensure that they will experience a safe, healthy, and productive life.

Description of Health Education

In some respects, health education has probably always been part of the human community, parents, and special skills in medicine, teaching younger members of the group the best practices for staying alive and healthy. Health education as we know it, however, dates only to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in most developed countries.

During this period, researchers began to discover the causes of infectious diseases, which are the primary threat to the health of most individuals in a society. The first understanding of public health principles also began to appear during this period. Researchers discovered how polluted air and water contributed to the outbreak of disease and ill-health in communities.

The key breakthrough in health education in the United States occurred in 1915 with the publication of a report by William Welch and Wickliffe Rose, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, outlining a health education program in the United States. That report called for a program that focused on teaching about infectious diseases was located in university programs, relied heavily on research, and was independent of existing medical schools.

The first institution along these lines, the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health opened a year later, in 1916. Over the next two decades, nine more such institutions were established, emphasizing teaching the practical aspects of health, such as public health administration, public health nursing, vital statistics, disease control, and community health services and field programs.

Growth in health education at the university level soon slowed, however, and did not become a national priority until 1957 when the U.S. Congress passed the Hill-Rhodes bill, which provided federal funding to establish university health education courses, programs, and degrees. As of 2013, there were 50 fully accredited and seven non-accredited schools of public health in the United States.

Health education is a required part of the curriculum in 40 U.S. states. Also, many individual school systems voluntarily offer such classes in the remaining ten states. Some form of health education is often provided at every grade level from kindergarten through grade 12, with individual school systems offering programs designed to meet their own needs and expectations.

Generally speaking, such courses tend to cover subjects such as the human body; infectious diseases and disease prevention; physical fitness; alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse; sexually transmitted infections; emotional health and self-image; misconceptions and myths about health; sexuality and sexual relationships; pregnancy, contraception, and family planning; environmental health; community and public health; and careers in the health sciences, such as medicine, nursing, public health, and other related occupations.

Under the best circumstances, health education courses are taught by individuals specially trained in the field. However, teachers are also often recruited from other areas, such as biology, general science, or physical education.

National guidelines for primary and secondary level health education courses were first issued in 1995 under the U.S. Department of Education auspices. A set of eight standards make up the guidelines, with performance indicators indicated for each grade level, prekindergarten through grade 2; grades 3 through 5; 6 through 8; and 9 through 12. The eight standards deal with the following general topics:

  1. Promotion of health and disease prevention
  2. The influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on health behaviors
  3. Information products and services available for the enhancement of health
  4. the use of interpersonal communication skills for the enhancement of health and avoidance of disease
  5. The use of decision-making skills in enhancing personal and community health
  6. Learning how to set goals to improve personal and community health
  7. Putting into practice the skills needed to improve health and avoid disease
  8. Learning how to advocate for personal, family, and community health

The so-called performance indicators used in the standards consist of observable behaviours by which one can determine whether and to what extent an individual has progressed toward each of the standards.

For example, a performance indicator for standard four at the youngest grade level consists of a child’s ability to “demonstrate ways to tell a trusted adult if threatened or harmed.” A performance indicator at the highest grade level for standard 3 is to “determine when professional health services may be required.”

Health educators work in a wide variety of settings and primary and secondary schools and colleges and universities. They also find employment in healthcare facilities, public health departments, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses. Among their responsibilities in these settings are the following:

  • Teaching patients about ways of handling their health problems, such as necessary treatments they may need to carry out
  • Arranging for testing and screenings for patients
  • Working with medical staff to improve the interaction between providers and patients
  • Organize and operate specialized programs on disease prevention and other public health issues
  • Provide administrative support by writing grant requests and maintaining contact with outside agencies
  • Design and execute programs focusing on specific health issues of concern to a community or a business, such as obesity or smoking
  • Conduct assessments and evaluations of health needs in a community, school, business, or another setting
  • Serve as members on and as liaisons to other health organizations at the local, regional, state, and national level.

Most schools and agencies require that health educators have at least a bachelor’s degree in health education, with a master’s degree often being preferred. Many institutions also require that a candidate become a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), a title earned from the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc.

The certificate is awarded to individuals who have passed a specialized test and remains valid as long as they take an additional 75 hours of approved coursework in each of the following five years.



Arya, Akshaya Neil, and Jessica Evert, eds. Global Health Experiential Education: From Theory to Practice. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Bonah, Christian, David Cantor, and Anja Laukotter, eds. Health Education Films in the Twentieth Century. Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2018.

Information Resources Management Association, ed. Health Literacy: Breakthroughs in Research and Practice. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2017.


Brayboy, Lynae M, et al. “Girl Talk: A Smartphone Application to Teach Sexual Health Education to Adolescent Girls.” Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology 30, no. 1 (February 2017): 23–8.

McCormack, Lauren., et al. “Improving Low Health Literacy and Patient Engagement: A Social-Ecological Approach.” Patient Education and Counseling 100, no. 1 (January 2017): 8–13.

Moran, Meghan B., et al. “Why Peer Crowds Matter: Incorporating Youth Subcultures and Values in Health Education Campaigns.” American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 3 (March 1, 2017): 389–95.

Seeri, Jayashree S., and Savita S. Patil. “Training of Medical Students in Communication Skills for Health Education.” International Journal of Medical Science and Public Health 7, no. 8 (2018): 671.


“Health Education.” World Health Organization. (accessed April 26, 2019).

“Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 7, 2018. (accessed April 26, 2019).

“What Is Health Education?” (accessed April 26, 2019).


Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), 10 G St. NW, Ste. 605, Washington, DC 20002, (202) 408-9804, (202) 408-9815, .

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