Health Education

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The role of health education in public health

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Economics and politics of health education

Many experts tell us that the principal goal of health education should be to change peoples' habits and attitudes.

Unfortunately, such a goal points the finger at what people do wrong, rather than building on what they do right. It is based on the paternalistic view that the 'ignorance' of poor people is the main cause of their ill health, and that it is society's job to correct their bad habits and attitudes.

A people-centered approach to health education takes the opposite position. It recognizes that the ill health of the poor is, in large part, the result of a social order that favors the strong at the expense of the weak. Its main goal is not to change the poor, but to help them gain the understanding and skills needed to change the conditions that cause poverty and poor health.

In education that focuses on behavior and attitude change, people are acted upon by the system and the world that surrounds them. In education that works for social change, people act upon the system and the world that surrounds them.

In making these points, we are not saying that there is no need for changes in personal attitudes and behavior. But whose attitudes need changing the most? Whose attitudes and habits cause more human suffering — those of the poor or those of the 'well-educated' dominating masses?

The unhealthy behavior of both rich and poor results partly from the unfair social situation in which we live. So rather than trying to reform people, health education needs to focus on helping people learn how to change their situation.

As people become more sure of themselves and their capacity for effective action, their attitudes and behavior may change. But lasting changes will come from inside, from the people themselves. When considering your effectiveness as a health educator, ask yourself: "How much does what I do help the poor gain more control over their health and their lives?"

Topics in health education

Integrating popular health education into curricula

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Some content on this page adapted from: David Werner & Bill Bower (1982), Helping Health Workers Learn. Berkeley: Hesperian. "Hesperian Health Guides encourages others to copy, reproduce, or adapt to meet local needs, any or all parts of this book…, provided that the parts reproduced are distributed free or at cost — not for profit."

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