Planning and Conducting Health Education for Community Members
Health education is any combination of learning experiences designed to help individuals and communities improve their environmental health literacy. The goals of health education are to increase awareness of local environmental conditions, potential exposures, and the impacts of exposures on individual and public health. Health education can also prepare community members to receive and better understand the findings of your public health work.
Some health education takes the form of shorter, one-on-one, or small group conversations with community members, state, territorial, local, and tribal (STLT) partners, and stakeholders. In the beginning of your public health work, you may need to constantly educate community members about exposure sources and exposure pathways –that is, how they may encounter harmful substances.
Later in your public health work, you may want to do a full community workshop or participate in existing community events to increase understanding about specific exposures related to the chemical of concern. Be sure to address how the harmful substance may be encountered, levels of exposure, and ways community members can prevent, reduce, or eliminate exposure. There may be other concerns that are not chemical-specific, such as environmental odors and community stress.
Health education is a professional discipline with unique graduate-level training and credentialing. Health educators are critical partners that advise in the development and implementation of health education programs. Public health work benefits from the skills that a health educator can provide. (See resource: What Is a Health Education Specialist?external icon) If you don’t have this training, see what you can do to build your skills and improve your one-on-one and small group educational conversations. Health educators may also work with other public health professionals such as health communication specialists. Health communication specialists develop communication strategies to inform and influence individual and community decisions that enhance health.
- Assess individual and community needs for health education. (See activity: Developing a Community Profile)
- Ask community members about factors that directly or indirectly increase the degree of exposure to environmental contamination. Factors may include community members accessing a hazardous site or the presence of lead in house paint, soil, or water.
- Develop a health education plan.
- Listen for opportunities to provide health education throughout your community engagement work.
Despite nearby mines being shut down, a tribal nation continued to face risks of exposure to uranium and radon. To help the community better understand how to reduce the risk of exposure, a group of federal and tribal agencies developed a uranium education workshop. The agencies established a vision and a set of strategies to ensure the workshop was technically-sound and culturally appropriate.
The agencies ensured that they
- Offered the workshop in English and tribal languages,
- Developed materials at the average US reading level for broad accessibility,
- Invited all local tribal families to participate, and
- Piloted the workshop with three communities before finalizing the content.
Before the first pilot workshop, the agencies sought feedback on content, tone, and complexity from community health representatives from the tribe’s department of health. The community health representatives provided many suggestions to tailor the presentation for tribal community audiences.
The workshop content was further refined after each pilot presentation. Working with local professionals and offering workshops as pilot sessions enabled the agencies to tailor content to the needs, preferences, and beliefs of local community members.
CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and ATSDR have many existing materials to help educate community members about specific chemicals. ATSDR’s Toxicological Profiles and Tox FAQs provide a comprehensive summary and interpretation of available toxicological and epidemiological information on a substance. ATSDR’s Choose Safe Places for Early Care and Education Program provides a framework and practices to make sure early care and education sites are located away from chemical hazards. Consider leveraging or adapting these resources, as well as the following chemical-specific websites and interventions, when developing health education activities for your community, such as
- NCEH’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Website
- ATSDR’s soilSHOP Toolkit—A toolkit to help people learn if their soil is contaminated with lead
- ATSDR’s Don’t Mess with Mercury — Mercury spill prevention materials for schools
Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS):
- ATSDR’s PFAS Website
As noted above there may be other concerns that are not chemical-specific, such as environmental odors and community stress. Some helpful resources to address these concerns can be found here:
Develop health education materials that are culturally appropriate, with community input.
Be aware that your health education messages may be received by the community differently than you intend. Consider testing your messages with community counterparts before you use them widely. Be aware of community beliefs about health and the environment, so that you can develop culturally appropriate health education materials. Your awareness will help you design, plan, and implement activities that are protective of health and respectful of community beliefs. (See callout box: Cultural Awareness)
- CDC Learning Connection (CDC). A source for information about public health training.
- Characteristics of an Effective Health Education Curriculum (CDC). A list of characteristics that you can use to develop an effective health education curriculum.
- Community Environmental Health Education Presentations (ATSDR). A collection of presentations designed for health educators to use in face-to-face sessions with community members to increase environmental health literacy.
- Promoting Environmental Health in Communities (ATSDR). A guide that includes talking points, PowerPoint presentations, and covers the basic concepts of the environment, toxicology, and health.
- What is a Health Education Specialist?external icon (Society for Public Health Education – SOPHE): A description of a health education specialist including areas of responsibility and competency.