Health communications is a rapidly expanding field with many opportunities for employment and multiple paths in which to specialize. Generalists begin with basic communications planning and outreach work. More experienced professionals might specialize in media relations, and ultimately the most successful go on to lead communications management at major public health organizations and agencies.
Health communications specialists create and disseminate messages that help both individuals and groups understand health and illness. They are mediators in the world of communications and media and play a big role in shaping how the public hears and speaks about health issues. Think of the way the general public discussed such epidemics as the H1N1 virus, for example. Part activists, many health communications specialists work to promote the adoption of healthy behaviors or effective disease management. Some health communications specialists work closely with the public health and research communities and coordinate the reporting of clinical trials and major public health initiatives.
Health communications specialists at major organizations and government agencies serve as marketing content experts. They plan, implement and evaluate marketing and outreach efforts to achieve their appointed program goals and positive health outcomes.
The specialists may take the helm of major public health outreach campaigns; therefore, they must have a wide range of skills in addition to communicating. They must be knowledgeable of budget and technology, have good people skills and be strategic planners and project managers. They combine this with their communications skills to design and implement programs that influence the public health issue under discussion in the medical, media and political spheres. In addition, they are often required to measure the outcomes of their work, thereby proving a return on investment. Therefore, they must be able to engage in scientific methods, test theories and statistically evaluate the impact of their work.
One advantage to being a health communications specialist is that the job translates across multiple sectors. You will find them in nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross, the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association; major medical technology and pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer; and in health-related government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. In addition, major schools, including university hospitals, employ health communications specialists, as do newspapers and television news networks that regularly feature stories and segments on health issues.
Education and Experience
About five years of experience is generally required in health care or business communication. A bachelor's degree in journalism is common, but health communications majors are now more common and a significant advantage. Specialists must be able to construct messages for multiple media, including print publications, web, as well as video and audio presentations. Therefore, experience with word processing, presentation, graphic and multimedia design software, along with social media, is preferred.
Salaries vary based on sector, years of experience and education. For example, a health communications specialist for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., graded at levels nine through 12, earns an annual salary of $51,630 to $97,333.