When you think of public health, your initial image may be of health care professionals speaking to the public about the benefits of eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. While these and other aspects of basic health literacy certainly have their place, public health encompasses many additional subjects. Public health professionals also address topics such as workplace health and safety, environmental health — for example, access to clean water and high-qual9ity air — disease prevention, disaster relief, health care availability, reproductive education, maternal and infant care, tobacco and alcohol abuse, drug overdose, domestic violence, safe driving, and more. Obtaining a degree in public health can set you on a path to working in several of these areas or specializing in just one.
Moreover, as a public health worker, you can work in a variety of fields, not just in medical or clinical settings. For instance, you can work in governments, nonprofit organizations, and community centers in the neighborhood where you grew up or almost anywhere else in the world. You can work for the benefit of a small community or for communities of millions, depending on your preferences.
The impact of public health
In the 21st century, the importance and impact of public health are more important than ever. Numerous health issues plague nearly every corner of the globe. But at the same time, advances in technology, medicine — and medical technology — offer the potential for greater numbers people to access health information and treatment opportunities. You could be at the helm of these initiatives.
Public health processes
Performing public health services can be intricate operations, but their impact is far-reaching. As public health workers aim to make a positive impact on the community — be it local or global —they devote time to first studying specific populations and identifying the key health challenges for those populations. For instance, in the United States, 42% of adults age 20 and over suffer from obesity. Armed with this alarming statistic, public health officials will construct a series of steps to attempt to resolve the issue and lower the obesity rate. The process will involve gathering data and research on how such a high level of obesity has come about.
A study by public health researchers at Harvard has found that bad habits, in modern work, recreation, and diet, are to blame for high rates of obesity. Now knowing what to target, you, as a public health official, might work to provide instruction and resources to the public about how to prevent obesity or lose weight. Your tasks might include stocking informative literature in doctors’ offices and hospitals, creating health-focused programs in schools, and appealing to the beverage and food industry to include nutritional facts and warnings on labels. Your aim would be to grow public awareness of the health risks of obesity and lead people to make healthier food choices. The broader picture is that you could be the one to lead individuals into a healthier physical (and mental) state overall.
That scenario offers one example of public health service, but the impact of public health can extend much further, depending on a given region’s particular public health concerns. Consider public health service on a global level. Depending on your sense of adventure, you might find yourself implementing rules and regulations for cleaner air quality in countries such as India and Bangladesh, providing sexual health treatment to residents of countries with high levels of HIV and AIDS (such as in Africa), or distributing medications and vaccines to populations that are suffering from diseases and viruses. A prime example of this is the COVID-19 vaccine distribution that has been going on in many countries worldwide.
Public health workers also act on preventive measures and, in doing so, work to save governments and communities money in the long run. For example, smoking-related illnesses cost the U.S. government more than $300 billion every year, due in large part to coverage of medical costs. To counteract such an incredibly high financial loss, you, as a public health employee, might initiate or participate in a campaign to increase taxes on cigarette purchases, to ban smoking in as many public places as possible, to implement restrictions on the marketing tobacco products. You could contribute to slowly but surely decreasing the heavy financial burden carried by the government and by insurance companies and consumers.
Courses and topics in public health
There are many sectors where you could work as an authority on public health. So any reputable public health education curriculum in which you enroll should pull from the variety of subjects that you’ll need under your belt in order to succeed in the field. These subjects include environmental studies, finance, world cultures, demographics and statistics, disease studies, ethics, law, and communications. Actual course classes often have titles such as Fundamentals of Public Health, Ethical and Legal Practices of Public Health, or Disease Prevention and Control.
Various institutions offer undergraduate degrees in public health as well as certification as a “health education specialist.” A master’s of public health (MPH) would allow you to specialize in many additional areas.
Master of public health (MPH)
Pursuing an MPH will allow you to focus on and advance in a specialty, such as epidemiology, social care, or disaster management. Alongside whichever specialty you may choose, you will also likely undergo a course of study in cultural sensitivity as it relates to public health. And it may include a concentration on health disparities, particularly as seen in rural regions.
Cultural sensitivity is stressed in the field of public health because the world is multicultural and our society is pluralistic. Each country follows its own set of rules, values, beliefs, and traditions, especially when it comes to health care. Immigrants to the United States bring these different perspectives with them. It would be important for you as a public health worker to approach individuals of different nationalities, ethnicities, and races without bias or judgment. It would be up to you to create a safe space in which community members feel comfortable and free to talk openly and honestly about their health care concerns.
You will find that different entities — be they local, state, federal, or international —will have differing amounts of funding available for the promotion of health care. On a global level, that means that consumer health education priorities and resources will vary from country to country.
As a public health official, you will only be able to work with what you are provided, and that can prove difficult if you are used to a certain standard of health care. Being able to accept and deal with differences is a step toward success as a public health authority.
You will inevitably face health disparities among different communities in the public health field. The most common health disparities are based on geographic location and socioeconomic status. The ways to solve these disparities are varied and still in development. Your institution may encourage you to seek employment in areas lacking in health care, such as poverty-prone areas. You may also be encouraged to develop powers of persuasion, to work with governments to provide wider health care coverage, including affordable insurance for those who earn lower wages.
In relation to preventive measures, you may want to join other public health professionals and seek out areas where health disparities are looming. At present, this is particularly true with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health workers are surveying the impact of the virus in certain regions and implementing strategies for how those disproportionately affected by the virus can receive proper care in the future. Such preventive measures may include increasing the presence of vaccines in these areas now and providing resources for staying healthy in the future.
Career paths in public health
Career paths in public health are just as extensive as curriculum studies, if not more so. The most common career choices reside in national, state, or local governments; national and local health departments; universities; faith-based organizations and community centers; nonprofits; or privately owned health offices. Each career pathway comes with its own set of advantages.
For example, if you would prefer to work with younger individuals, you could consider working on a college campus as a health educator or education coordinator. Here you can provide valuable information to students on safe sexual practices, supply access to contraceptives, help young mothers with proper maternal care practices, and assist with sexually transmitted disease testing. As you gain several years’ experience performing these tasks, you could be grooming yourself for a promotion to a health policy advisory in a general hospital.
Alternatively, suppose you would prefer working with an older population. In that case, consider working as a public health nutritionist, which could include providing information on healthy eating for seniors. On a broader scale, you could pursue a career as a consultant, opening communication channels with a geriatric orientation and creating, for local centers, programs that teach ways to stay fit, maintain hygiene, and more.
Examples of jobs and professions
In addition to the types of jobs described here so far, you may want to consider some of the following:
· Biostatistician. Collect and interpret data to draw conclusions on health and medicine.
· Disease investigator. Research, investigate, and monitor suspected outbreaks of diseases.
· Environmental health specialist. Investigate cases of pollution, water and food sanitation issues, and other environmental concerns.
· Epidemiologist. Study causes of disease and educate people on disease prevention.
· Government health policy analyst. Evaluate current health policies and their impact on various communities.
· Health and safety specialist. Inspect workplaces to ensure they are complying with strict health guidelines.
· Hospital administrator. Supervise day-to-day operations in a hospital.
· Infection control officer. Collect data on infections and educate health care practitioners on best practices for dealing with infections.
· Public health analyst. Coordinate and study public health programs.
· Public health policy coordinator. Review current public health policies to evaluate their effectiveness.
· Public health researcher. Conduct surveys, analyze collected data, and uncover trends in public health.
Teaching public health
If you would prefer to teach rather than be directly involved in the field, you have the option of being a public health educator in a school. There are public health courses in schools across the United States, but they often lack in-depth treatment of health concerns beyond physical education or diet. In recent years, increasing numbers of universities and community organizations have called on the U.S. government and the medical establishment to “ strengthen the integration of health literacy” education into public schools.
You would be tasked with promoting greater awareness of public health issues such as the climate crisis, infectious diseases, and the stigma of mental health challenges. You might introduce students to think critically about public health, and foster empathy in the classroom. You would equip a new generation of students to enter the workforce with a deeper understanding of which public health policies need to be addressed and how to address them. Along the way, you can also instruct students on what to expect at a medical appointment, the importance of taking medications as prescribed, and other day-to-day self-care responsibilities.
State of public health today and beyond
Health care occupations are expected to grow by 15% in the ten-year time span from 2019 to 2029. The rising need for public health officials, especially in the disease outbreak and control field, is higher than previously seen in recent history, mostly due to COVID-19. Besides disease and virus control, there is a greater need for analysts and technology-skilled public health workers, as many departments take on new and ever-advancing technology across the world. These technological advancements do not just aid in the direct treatment of patients but may also help public health professionals anticipate future health problems.
There truly is no better time than now for studying public health and entering the profession. You can make a difference locally, nationally, and maybe even globally.