Health Communications Specialist

The human species have practiced health communication since the creation of the Hippocratic Oath in the fourth century BC – a moral code for healthcare providers to do their best and do no harm. Flashing forward to more modern times with Florence Nightingale’s work in 1853 when she arranged the training of nurses for the Crimean War. 

In the 21st century, the field of health communication goes hand in hand with modern society, humanity, and the importance of health promotion. The discipline focuses on four areas: health promotion; healthcare intervention; communication between patient and provider and family; and communication technologies.

The role of health communications specialists is an invaluable resource between the medical community and society. In the age of digital health records, health communications specialists work collaboratively with medical providers and patients to make timely adjustments that save lives and increase prevention.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), between 2021 and 2031, the job outlook for health communications specialists will increase by 12 percent, which is faster than the average for all job prospects. As a result, a 15,200 position opening is projected each year and throughout the decade. The median annual salary for the position is $48,860. 

Health communication specialists work in a variety of settings. Typical work environments are nonprofit organizations, biotechnology companies, research organizations, publishing companies, institutions of education, hospitals, public health, and regulatory agencies, which include state, national, and international government agencies. 

Health communications specialists typically hold a bachelor’s degree and have certifications or backgrounds in public health and related fields. Certificate programs in health communications specialists and master’s programs require bachelor’s degrees for program admissions. Often programs offering this specific field of study offer a master of arts degree (MA) or a master of science degree (MS) focusing on health or communications.

The article below outlines the specializations, admissions, educational programs, and the steps to becoming a professional in the health communications specialist field of work.

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Health Communications Specialist Specializations & Degree Types

The education received by the candidate leads the road to health communications specialists and certification. Advanced degrees are a necessary component of a health communication specialist. A bachelor’s degree, preferably one focused on health sciences, is a prerequisite to master’s, graduate certificate, or post-baccalaureate programs. 

There is a variety of specializations and degree types a health communication specialist may pursue. The following is a list of standard master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS) degree program titles:

  • MHA: master of healthcare administration
  • MSHA: master of science in health administration
  • MA in strategic communication with a track in health communication
  • MA in organizational communication with a concentration in health communication
  • MA of communication management with an area of focus on health & social change communication
  • MA in communication with a concentration in health communication 
  • MA or MS in health communication
  • MA in health communication and promotion
  • MA in applied communication with a health communication track

Admissions Requirements for Health Communications Specialist Programs

Interested health communications specialists need a bachelor’s degree before admission to said programs. Having a health sciences bachelor’s degree is ideal but not required for admission in many cases. Most programs will require an application, letters of reference, a resume, GRE scores, and letters of purpose.

Health Communications Specialist Program Accreditation

The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) is a national organization that provides exams, renewals, recertification, credentialing, and education for health communications specialists, among other public health professions. The National Commission recognizes them for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the International Accreditation Service (IAS), which provides a global standard for certification agencies.

On-Campus Health Communications Specialist Degree Programs

The University of Alabama at Birmingham – MSHA

The School of Health Professions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s health administration program is ranked #1 by the U.S. News & World Report. The program has solid values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, along with respect and excellence, to drive the agenda forward by doing their best through recognizing talent in teams, which sets the program apart from numerous others in the area. 

In this 33-month program, students learn in nine- to 12-week semesters, including an administrative residency. The learning model is derived from cohorts’ work to foster peer relationships and build supportive measures. Real-world work in partnership with the UAB Health System provides hands-on application of coursework. The application process includes an application with three letters of reference; a resume; a fee of $70, and official transcripts sent directly to the university.

  • Location: Birmingham, AL
  • Duration: 33 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare  Management Education (CAHME)
  • Tuition: $434 per credit (resident); $1,045 per credit (non-residents)

Tulane University – MHA

Known as the first public health school in the United States since 1912, Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine prepares students to be insightful leaders and developers to continue to develop and shape the future of public health. Offering dual programs on campus and online, Tulane is making a dent in the disparity of public health and changing the system’s structure. It is ranked #12 by USA Today’s best public health schools nationwide. 

The program focuses on the following core ideals: evaluation, community engagement, health communication, intervention principles, and qualitative and quantitative research methodologies applied to health crises in any setting. The program requirements help students design a public health intervention program based on theory. In addition, students take 45 hours of courses in biostatistics for public health; social and behavioral aspects of health; social marketing; public health policy and practice; community organization; and community work for social justice. 

  • Location: New Orleans, LA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Tuition: $1,537 per credit 

Rush University

Since 1981, this CAHME-accredited program has taught from a teacher-to-practitioner model to ensure the best possible education. With small class sizes of twenty-five people or less, the full-time health systems management program started in 1979 and entailed two years of focused work with a paid part-time internship. 

The curriculum includes health resources management; a patient experience seminar; finance fundamentals; statistics for healthcare management; health law and ethics for healthcare managers; and managerial epidemiology. The program’s application process includes a bachelor’s degree requirement, a highly recommended microeconomics course, an online application, and official transcripts. 

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: 21 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare  Management Education (CAHME) 
  • Tuition: $1,234 per credit

Virginia Commonwealth University – MSHA

Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Health Professionals prepares the future of healthcare leaders in their master of science in the health administration program. This 41-credit program aims to help students lead in the private and public sectors of the healthcare system. Ranked fifth in the nation by the U.S. News and World Report, the MSHA program was written for self-starters professionals looking for administrative positions that serve in compounded health services organizations. 

The program is a combination of both online and asynchronous models. Student learning outcomes are organized into the following categories: communication, professionalism, leadership, business and analytic skills, and healthcare environment knowledge. The curriculum centers around leadership preparation for management, operations, and strategy positions. Admission requirements include a personal written statement; three references; official transcripts; and test scores. 

  • Location: Richmond, VA
  • Duration: 22 months
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $6,309 per semester (residents); $12,978 per semester (non-residents)

The Ohio State University -MHA

The College of Public Health at Ohio State University is ranked seventh in the nation by the U.S. News and World & Report. Graduates from this program enjoy a 95 percent job placement rate and access to one of the most robust alum societies in the nation. The two-year program facilitates a summer residency program engaged in hands-on learning and application of health administrative practices. The unique combination of classroom and field-based training embeds MHA students directly into a clinical care team at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to provide a direct connection to patient services. 

The first year of the curriculum is centered around building a foundation of skills necessary for the role, which include analytic, critical thinking, and communication skills. The second year of the curriculum takes the first year’s foundation and builds upon it with case and practice-based learning and integrative work. In addition, students track their progress through self-assessment and residency educators. The priority application deadline for admissions falls on December first, and the regular deadline is February first, with an online application available through SOPHAS/HAMPCAS. SOPHAS/HAMPCAS is a service of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH).

  • Location: Columbus, OH
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare  Management Education (CAHME)
  • Tuition: $2,576-$3,322 per course (residents); $2,776-$3,522 per course (non-residents)

Oregon Health Sciences University – MSHA

The Oregon Health Sciences University School of Medicine Division of Management’s master of science in healthcare administration program is geared toward working professionals seeking an advanced degree in management. The program is a hybrid model with eighty percent asynchronous online coursework and twenty percent live online classes. This 54-credit program includes courses in healthcare systems; financial reporting; organizational mindsets for managers; leadership skills for healthcare; managerial decision-making; strategic communication; and financial management. 

Admissions requirements include two years of work experience in a healthcare field; a bachelor’s degree; a minimum GPA of 3.0; an online application; official transcripts; a $70 non-refundable fee, and an interview. A graduate certificate in healthcare administration is also available. 

  • Location: Portland, OR
  • Duration: 21 months
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Tuition: $635 per credit hour

Online or Hybrid Health Communications Specialist Degree Programs

Boston University – Online MS in health communication

At Boston University Metropolitan College, healthcare issues are tackled head-on with two concentration areas offered in the online master of science in health communication skills. This program is geared towards professionals with backgrounds in health communications, public health education, journalism, healthcare, public relations, and marketing communication backgrounds. Professors teach courses in the field that deepen the understanding of theory, practice, and elements of the communications field that embed health sciences into practical practice. Classes are student-focused, with small numbers of at most fifteen students to one professor to meet the needs of emerging professionals. 

Once admitted, students can choose from two concentration options: visual and digital health communication; and healthcare promotion, media & marketing. Core courses include writing for health; health communication principles and strategies; the U.S. healthcare system; and research methods for health communication.  

  • Location: Boston, MA 
  • Duration: 16 to 18 months
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) 
  • Tuition: $30,525 per semester

Southern Oregon University – Online MBA in healthcare administration

Southern Oregon University’s online MBA in healthcare administration expands student knowledge through vital operational systems and current healthcare topics and develops current healthcare information systems. The 33-credit program features seven-week classes in strategic operations management; marketing management strategies; economic analysis; advanced organizational behavior; and legal and ethical issues in business and management. Twelve credit hours of concentration courses include advanced health communication; healthcare in the United States: structures, system, policy; and process improvement. 

Admission qualifications include candidates holding a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, three years of relevant experience, and a 3.0 GPA. The GMAT is not required for admission, and students need not take any prerequisite courses to be eligible.

  • Location: Ashland, OR
  • Duration: 15 months
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Tuition: $19,350 total

Grand Canyon University – Online MHA 

Grand Canyon University offers an online and hybrid MHA program emphasizing healthcare quality and patient safety. Courses are offered in eight-week formats and include leadership styles and development; healthcare policies and economics; fundamental healthcare business analysis; and analysis of contemporary healthcare delivery models. In addition, a sixteen-week healthcare practicum course is required to give students hands-on practical experience in health administration. 

Working professionals in this 60-credit program can pursue a degree online while remaining employed. The hybrid model provides a one-time per-week meeting on campus to fit the needs of students best. 

Graduates from this program become directors of risk and quality; corporate directors; patient safety officers; health information management directors; healthcare administrators; long-term care facilities; hospitals; outpatient facilities; mental health agencies; and many more career-related roles. The admissions process for GCU involves an online application form, transcripts, and an online exploration of financial aid options.

  • Location:  Phoenix, AZ
  • Duration: 2.5 years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Tuition: $565 per credit

Eastern Oregon University – Online MHA

Prospective health communications specialists will find the online master of healthcare administration degree at Eastern Oregon University flexible, accessible, and convenient. Offering the same courses as the in-person program, EOU provides online access to the elements of a program catering to prospective students. The program comprises 45 credit hours requiring a B- average and a 3.0 GPA or higher for graduation. The program is taught entirely by professionals in the field, and additionally, the capstone portion is personalized to fit the accurate picture of current healthcare environments. 

The curriculum was designed to combine theory and real-world components, providing students with both elements and forming a solid foundation from which to build. The course list includes healthcare delivery systems; healthcare informatics; population health and epidemiology; urban and rural health policy and planning; human resource management; and managerial finance. Understanding the needs of modern students, the EOU dean or program coordinator can approve up to fifteen transfer credits.

  • Location: La Grande, OR
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) 
  • Tuition: $5,004 per term

Maryville University

Applicants from midwestern states will find the online master’s in health administration at Maryville University an excellent choice. Offering four options for concentration, students can focus on senior services, healthcare leadership; health informatics and analytics; population health management; or general studies. The one hundred percent online program provides three start times per year and a graduation timeline of two years. 

Students are guided through the program to have a strong balance between business and patient care, which are necessary career components. Courses include healthcare quality and performance improvement; population health management; financial management; healthcare law; healthcare technology and information systems; and ethics and risk management. The admissions process does not involve any exam or fees to apply and offers transfer credit options. 

  • Location: St. Louis, MO
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $714 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Health Communications Specialist?

Starting with high school and ending with a master’s degree completion, the road to becoming a health communications specialist may take up to thirteen years for individuals to complete. Therefore, the necessary component of actual work experience is a factor that depends upon the candidate paving the road towards a career in health communications specialty roles.

How To Become a Health Communications Specialist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Graduating from high school or completing a GED are the first steps toward becoming a health communications specialist. Prospective health communications students would benefit from science, communications, public speaking, advanced placement (AP) courses in any science or math topic, and business classes. The benefit of AP courses is that they allow high school students to earn college credit for $97 per exam. 

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor of Science in Public Health, Psychology, or Communications (Four Years)

The second step toward working as a health communications specialist is completing a bachelor of science degree in a field such as communications, psychology, or public health. Bachelor of science degrees typically take four years to complete, and students can gain hands-on experience through internships.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience (One to Three Years, Minimum)

After completing a bachelor’s degree, aspiring health communication specialists must accumulate work experience directly related to their future fields. Working within hospitals, long-term care facilities, treatment centers, public relations, communication departments, and other related areas are options to gain hands-on experience. After a few years of work experience, candidates can apply for master’s programs in health communications.

Step 4: Complete a Graduate Degree in Health Communications Specialist and Specializations (Two to Four Years)

Earning a master’s degree in health communications or a related field is where students learn through didactic courses and hands-on experiences. Graduate students may choose to pursue an area of specialization such as:

  • Senior services
  • Healthcare leadership
  • Health informatics and analytics
  • Population health management

Step 5: Obtain and Maintain All Certifications and Local Licensure (Every One to Five Years)

Certifications for health communication specialists vary by state. The national credentialing organization is the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) which offers two certifications (CHES and the MCHES), registration, licensure, and accreditation for individuals and programs. While some states accept this certification, each has unique requirements for health communications specialists to work legally. Detailed information about NCHEC certification and licensure is in the section below.

What Do Health Communications Specialists Do?

Health communication specialists are in charge of a myriad of functions on a day-to-day basis. As a result, each position within the field holds specific job functions, which may look different from the following list.

  • Assess health needs on an individual and community basis
  • Provide resources about health topics by developing events, materials, and programs to serve individuals and the public
  • Discuss health concerns with communities
  • Formulate programs for outreach and support
  • Provide supervision for education outreach
  • Evaluate current programs and form improvement plans
  • Spread knowledge regarding healthy choices, medical treatment, and disease prevention
  • Communicating with the public at large regarding specific medical and health-related topics
  • Internal and external communication within an organization and the general public
  • Collaborate with marketing departments
  • Work collaboratively with strategic planners and project managers
  • Run conferences
  • Design and implement programs
  • Plan, discuss, and run campaigns for media purposes
  • Formulate advertisement campaigns, and press conferences
  • Create brochures promoting programs and initiatives
  • Assessment of goals and strategies

Health Communications Specialist Certifications & Licensure

The process of credentialing a health communications specialist or health education professional can be pursued individually through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). The concept of credentialing may encompass certification, registration, licensure, and or accreditation for organizations. In addition, recent graduates of accredited programs may choose to obtain credentials through the NCHEC. 

There are two NCHEC certifications:

  • CHES: Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)
  • MCHES: Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES)

The CHES certification is for early career professionals, while the MCHES is for those with five years or more of health communications specialists. To be eligible for each exam, applicants must submit official transcripts showing a major in health education and a certain number of credits in disciplines that align with the organization’s competencies. Both credentials must be renewed every three years, and credential holders must pay a $60 fee. 

Community health workers (CHWs) are recognized by each state and require certification, credentialing, and supervision requirements that students can achieve through initial certification and continuing education requirements. For example, in Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority states that candidates are eligible for state licensure if they meet specific criteria: 

  • Complete an approved training program or documentation of 3,000 or more hours of work in Oregon 
  • Fill out a Traditional Health Work Certification and Renewal application (within 60 to 90 days for those recertifying)

To recertify, candidates considered “traditional health workers” must show twenty hours of continued education training every three years.

How Much Do Health Communications Specialists Make?

Salaries for health communications specialists vary depending on education, experience, and cost of living in a particular area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), health education specialists earned average annual salaries of $64,930 per year. 

  • 10th percentile: $37,020
  • 25th percentile: $46,770
  • 50th percentile (median): $60,600
  • 75th percentile: $78,220
  • 90th percentile: $102,480

Health Communications Specialists Career Alternatives

Health communications specialists are eligible for many careers in the industry. Here are three career possibilities for those with master’s degrees in health administration, public health, or a related field. 

Become an Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists’ role in the community is investigating, examining, and interpreting patterns that cause diseases or trends in occupational and traffic-based injuries. These professionals generally report research findings within the public sector and work with teams of professionals and regulatory authorities.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. (CBIC)

Become a Dietician or Nutritionist

Dieticians and nutritionists organize, plan, and manage food service organizations or nutrition programs for individuals. These roles help the community members make healthy choices and provide access to knowledge and resources that healthily impact lives.

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree; Master’s degree starting Jan. 1, 2024 (for RDN/RD certification)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC), Certified Nutrition Coach (NASM); Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

Become a Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor

Addiction specialists provide guidance, treatment, and advice through approved programs and protocols supporting the public on individualized plans. The direct role of these professionals focuses on support and therapy to help persons in need of recovery from addiction. 

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor (CADC), Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC)
Rachel Becker

Rachel Becker

Writer

Rachel Becker is a freelance writer who enjoys life in the PNW. She holds a master’s degree in education and taught in elementary classrooms for twelve years. When she is not running around after two toddlers, she makes time for daily movement, running two blogs, and reading.

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