There’s more to becoming a community health education worker than completing a health education degree, one of the easiest online master’s degrees. Health educators often need some form of professional credential, and that means taking a certification exam, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Two of the credentials community health workers most commonly pursue are the CHES and MCHES credentials. Some states also offer their own certification programs, which are usually voluntary.
The Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) Exams
The first level of certification for health education workers is the Certified Health Education Specialist, or CHES, credential awarded by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc (NCHEC). Many health education and community health worker roles now list the CHES credential as a “preferred” qualification for job candidacy, and employers’ consideration of this credential is on the rise, the NCHEC reported.
Before you can sit for the CHES exam, you must have – or be expecting to earn within the next 90 days – a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a doctoral degree with considerable coursework in health education. If your degree isn’t awarded specifically in a discipline lie health education, public health education, community health education or school health education, then you must have completed a minimum of 25 semester credits in health education, as evidenced by your transcript.
The CHES credential is designed to measure the knowledge of competency areas of early-career professionals. You don’t need to meet a minimum level of experience to sit for the CHES exam. In fact, some students take the exam as early as 90 days prior to graduating.
The Master Certified Health Education Specialist is the NCHEC’s credential for health education workers with advanced experience and education. Having at least a master’s degree and five years of work experience in the field is mandatory before you can sit for the MCHES exam.
Both the CHES and the MCHES exam take three hours to complete and present 150 scored questions covering each of the seven areas of responsibility identified by the NCHEC. MCHES test-takers are expected to have knowledge of advanced-level sub-competencies that don’t appear in the CHES exam.
Just over two-thirds of test-takers passed the CHES exam in April 2019, and just under two-thirds passed the test in October 2019, the NCHEC reported. Among MCHES test-takers, more than 78 percent passed the test in April 2019, but only 64 percent passed the October 2019 exam.
Altogether, there are more than 15,000 health education workers holding an active CHES or MCHES certification, according to the NCHEC.
The Areas of Responsibility for Health Education Specialist Credentials
The current CHES and MCHES exams are both based on the Seven Areas of Responsibility for health education specialists identified by the Health Education Specialist Practice Analysis (HESPA) study in 2015. These areas include assessing needs and capacity for health education, planning health education programming, implementing health education and promotion plans, engaging in health education research and evaluation, managing health education, being a health education resource person and communication and advocacy for health education.
However, in 2020, a new HESPA study revised these standards to Eight Areas of Responsibility. Needs assessment, planning, implementation, evaluation and research and leadership and management remain as major areas of responsibility. Under the new benchmarks, advocacy and communication are two separate areas of responsibility. Ethics and Professionalism has been added as an eighth standalone area of responsibility for health education workers.
The CHES and MCHES exams won’t be revised to reflect these new areas of responsibility until 2022, the NCHEC reported.
State-Level Community Health Worker Certification Tests
Depending on the state where you work, state-level certification may also be in your future. In most of the United States, state certification isn’t required for health education and community health workers, the BLS reported. The certification processes that are popping up in more and more states are largely voluntary, but whether or not you have these certifications could affect your job prospects.
The rise of state certification programs for community health workers makes it important to be aware of your state’s options and requirements. Even if you are studying online instead of in person, you might be better off choosing a program in the state in which you plan to work, especially one that is aligned with the state’s certification requirements.
Not all states require community health workers to take a test to get certified. In Maryland, for example, the MDH Community Health Worker Certification team bases its assessment of whether the applicant meets all core competency requirements on a letter of validation.