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What is Public Health?

Public health is the science of disease prevention among communities and individuals. Find out more about the education you need and the jobs available.

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Home » Public Health

People with a strong drive to help others are often drawn to careers in the healthcare field. Career tracks like nursing, medical assisting, or physical therapy allow healthcare professionals to make a positive difference in the lives of patients they care for. However, not all healthcare careers are focused on one-on-one patient interactions. Public health professionals are focused on improving the health of entire communities. Their work can change healthcare policies, outreach, and delivery. Change can be made on the local, state, or even national level.

An education in public health can give you the skills you need to find answers to current issues that impact the health and safety of your community.

“Most of the issues we’re facing right now are preventable,” says Jeff Oxidine, MPH, MBA, director of health workplace diversity at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, “and there’s a tremendous opportunity for public health (professionals) to go upstream and to have more impact on prevention and building healthier communities and giving people the opportunities to have good health.”

Public health is a broad career category that includes many exciting possibilities. People who love to engage with the public might enjoy a career as a health educator or social worker, while people who prefer to work in a scientific setting might thrive as a biostatistician or epidemiologist. No matter which path you choose, you’ll find one commonality: a focus on improving the health and wellness of your community.

How to Get Started in the Field

Public health is a great way to have a long-lasting and fulfilling career making a difference in your community. Whether you’re currently in high school exploring your undergraduate options or are a working professional looking to go back to school, there are a few steps you’ll need to take on your way to a public health career.

  1. Choose a specialty.

    There are a wide range of careers available in the public health field. Your interests and skill can help you narrow down your career path.

  2. Get educated.

    You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to work in public health. You can go for an advanced degree right after your undergraduate program if you know you want a career that requires a master’s or doctoral degree.

  3. Gain work experience.

    Work experience can help you advance your career and qualify for leadership roles. It can also help you qualify to take some certification exams.

  4. Continue your education.

    You can go back to school to earn an advanced degree or certificate in public health. Even if you’re not looking to advance your education, staying current in the field and attending continuing education classes and conferences is a great idea.

Why is Public Health Important?

Public health professionals are often on the front lines when major events impact communities large and small. This happens on a localized scale on an everyday basis. For example, health educators work to reduce hospitalizations by creating programs that help community members manage their chronic health conditions.

“We serve people within the context and the communities in which they live and focus on prevention as well as good care,” Oxindine said.

The reach of public health professionals spreads far beyond their local communities, however. As the year 2020 proved, public health professionals are essential on a global scale. While doctors, nurses, and other clinical professionals focused on caring for patients infected with COVID-19, public health professionals such as epidemiologists, health educators, health policy advisors, and social services managers worked behind the scenes to help society understand, manage, and ultimately control the virus.

A career in public health is one that can make an impact on the world around you. Whether you’re teaching community classes on health topics or advising politicians on laws and regulations, your job has the potential to create positive change.

No matter the type of public health job you choose, you’ll always be striving toward improving communities and helping individuals. Disease prevention and health promotion will be the backbone of your career and you’ll focus on the physical, mental and environmental health of all types of populations.

The History of Public Health

The field of public health has always responded to important societal needs. Some needs, such as access to proper nutrition or healthcare for infants, have always been societal concerns. Many other needs have evolved and changed as society has progressed.

In the United States, many of the ideas and programs associated with public health got their start during the industrial revolution. At the time, workplace safety was rarely a priority and workplace injuries were common. Factory workers and their families often lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions where diseases could spread rapidly. It was difficult for people to get the nutrition they needed to remain healthy, and access to basic hygiene needs could be difficult to secure. Deaths at the time reflected these conditions. For example, infant mortality rates were as high as 165 for every 1,000 births. In some major cities, only 70% of infants survived to see their first birthday.

Through the early 1900s, programs were put in place to address these issues. Advancements in healthcare such as antibiotics and vaccines were made available and efforts were made to determine the causes of infant mortality, workplace fatalities, and serious concerns. Laws and policies were implemented at state and national levels in an effort to improve public health. This led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1930 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1946. Today, those agencies and public health professionals across the nation work to build healthier communities, promote safer work and living conditions, and prevent the spread of disease.

Public Health Degrees and Careers

A variety of available public health careers are geared towards creating positive change and making a difference in communities.

“Public health is a very multidisciplinary field,” Oxidine says. “There’s something in it for everyone. The key is to find your passion and align it with the different (public health) roles.”

You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to get started. A bachelor’s degree will allow you to take on careers that impact your local community such as health education. You can advance your career and tackle broader issues or take on leadership roles with master’s degree roles such as healthcare administrator. If you want to make changes to laws and policies, a doctoral degree can open the door to careers such as public health consultant.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree will provide you with the skills and knowledge required to hold a number of entry-level jobs in the public health field. It’s also a great educational foundation if you’re considering pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree. Popular bachelor’s level public health careers include:

Health Educator:

As a health educator you’ll promote wellness in the community. You might lead community classes on healthy habits, conduct community outreach, or advocate for changes that will benefit the health of community members. Some health educators work in hospitals or other healthcare facilities, teaching patients and families about diagnoses, procedures, and steps they can take to improve their health.

Emergency Response Planner:

Emergency response planners work to help their communities prepare for natural disasters. You’ll work with local lawmakers and social service agencies to create disaster management plans and policies in this role. You’ll also be on the front line when disasters strike to oversee the response.

Disease Prevention Specialist:

Disease prevention specialists study how disease spreads in communities. They collect and analyze health data to help determine causes of disease and the best ways to slow its spread.

Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree is a great way to advance your career. An advanced degree can prepare you to take on leadership roles such as social services management. If you want to take on a master’s degree-level career in public health, it’s a smart idea to look into dual degree programs in public health. These programs allow you to earn your bachelor’s degree and master’s degree together. You can finish the entire program in five years and jump into the master’s degree-level career you’ve been working toward. You can also earn your master’s degree in a separate public health master’s program available at universities around the country. A master’s degree can prepare you for a number of challenging careers, including:

Healthcare Administrator:

In this role, you’ll manage a healthcare department or facility. You’ll implement and oversee new policies that will improve the delivery of care. You’ll make sure staff is trained in new laws, policies, and regulations.

Epidemiologist:

Epidemiologists study diseases and injury. As an epidemiologist, you’ll track the spread and severity of a disease and work to develop prevention strategies. You’ll study the communities most impacted and use data to determine why those communities are more at risk.

Social Services Manager:

This role oversees social service departments and agencies. You’ll create policies and programs for community outreach, patient education, and other services. You’ll work to ensure people helped by your agency or department get the resources they need.

Doctorate

Doctoral degrees are a great fit for students interested in high-level administrative and leadership roles such as health policy advisor. In these roles, you can be a force in creating and overseeing policies and strategies to improve the health of the community or even the country. Doctoral programs in public health can be very competitive. Students with an educational, volunteer, or professional background in a public health discipline will be looked at favorably by admissions committees. There are several roles available to those who hold a doctoral degree:

Biostatistician:

As a biostatistician, you’ll analyze data about medications and diseases. You might develop and oversee clinical trials of new medications or conduct research to find the causes of diseases.

Health Policy Advisor:

In this role you’ll analyze how health care laws and policies impact the community. You’ll study the results of current and past health policies and use the information to advise lawmakers about the potential impact of new policies. You’ll also conduct community outreach to get feedback on health policies.

Public Health Consultant:

Public health consults work to create, implement, and manage health policies and programs. They work with both government and private agencies to oversee programming that will benefit the health of the community. Some public health consultants also create and manage employee training for healthcare and social service workers.

Salary and Job Outlook

Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing fields in the country, and public health roles are no exception. Public health professionals will have an important role to play as the healthcare industry changes and adjusts to the unique challenges of the 21st century. Public health encompasses a variety of roles and degree levels, encompassing a wide range of salaries in the field. In general, public health professionals are well compensated for the important work they do.

“Don’t let anyone tell you can’t make money in public health,” Oxidine says. “This is a field where you can do well by doing good.”

Median SalaryPredicted Job Growth
Health Educator$48,14017%
Emergency Response Planner$76,2506%
Disease Prevention Specialist$74,56030%
Healthcare Administrator$104,28032%
Epidemiologist$74,56030%
Social Services Manager$51,76012%
Biostatistician$93,29033%
Health Policy Adviser$125,3509%
Public Health Consultant$125,3509%
stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing writer

jeff oxendine

With professional insight from:
Jeff Oxidine, MPH, MBA
Director of Health Workplace Diversity
University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health