Public health professionals strive to ensure the general well-being of their communities by detecting and mitigating health threats. They work with urban and rural communities, as well as other professional organizations, and they are instrumental in public health policy development as well as public health administration. Being a public health professional is not only a rewarding service-oriented career, it is also one with ample opportunities for career advancement.
What is Public Health?
Public health refers to the physical, mental, and social well-being of various populations within a community. Under this vast scope of practice, public health aims to address the following core concerns:
- Health threats that exist within a community: public health surveillance aims to identify, assess, mitigate, and eliminate such threats
- The impact of potential and extent of public health threats
- The status of a community’s health
- Healthy behaviors such as exercise, smoking cessation, and good nutrition
- The development and advocacy of public health policy
- The interpretation and dissemination of health-based research to the benefit of the general public
- The assessment and improvement of environmental health
- The assessment and safety of occupational health
While public health generally deals with the health needs of a population, it also pertains to individuals, families, businesses and organizations.
The Impact of Public Health Professionals
Much of the work done by public health workers serves the needs of under-served and at-risk populations in rural and urban settings. These individuals might lack access to health care and health education, which places them at additional risk. For these reasons, public health workers use their professional training and expertise to:
- Enrich a community’s health: Public health professionals are trained to create community health profiles, determine health risks, and address health threats through strategic interventions.
- Encourage health reform: They use their knowledge to influence the creation or modification of public health policy. It is the role of these professionals to ensure that those within the community have access to and use the services they need.
- Facilitate health-care improvements: Beyond helping populations to gain access to health care, health professionals look for ways to optimize resources and streamline operations to assure access to services for everyone in the community.
In addition to improving the quality of life of the populations, public health professionals undertake important roles and responsibilities to help future generations grow to be healthier than their ancestors. They educate youth to make wiser choices regarding their health and to pass those lessons on to their children.
Public health professionals have a long-term positive impact on the populations they serve through hands-on and administrative avenues. They are essential in mitigating health threats and in sustaining overall wellness.
Who Can Get a Degree in Public Health?
The people who pursue careers in public health are dedicated, caring, service-oriented, analytical, and passionate. Anyone with an interest in helping others and making a positive difference for their communities, and the greater global community, should consider this degree path. Among those pursuing their degrees in public health are:
- College graduates who hold bachelor degrees in any field and are currently working in the public health field
- Professionals with employment backgrounds and degrees in health care
- Clinical care professionals, such as physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, who want to expand the scope of their practice beyond the individual patient to the broader community
- People from backgrounds entirely unrelated to public health who decide to make a mid-career change because they have been drawn to public service in the health care fields
While there are jobs available for those with bachelor degrees in public health, having a master’s degree, especially a Master of Public Health degree, enhances the career potential for advancement and the scope of professional capabilities for the graduate. The Master of Public Health can be earned entirely online at Creighton University in a flexible and expedient timeframe.
Those who pursue an education in public health are well trained in areas of health and administrative policy, analytic methods, technology and information, budget and finance, and communication, all of which are critical skills for public health professionals.
Careers Available for Public Health Graduates
A broad range of career paths are available for public health graduates, including positions with governmental and non-governmental health service agencies, social services and research agencies, health care clinics, and environmental and occupational health care agencies. Some positions deal with policy and administration while others focus on working with communities and individuals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that public health careers will grow by 37% between 2010 and 2020.
Administrative Careers in Public Health
Public Health services administration pertains to leadership and management within a health organization. Those most suited for public health administration are excellent communicators. They are compassionate and are inspiring leaders. Public health services administrators work in:
- Hospital network health care systems
- Nursing facilities
- Department of health services
- Non-profit health care organizations
- National organizations such as the American Red Cross
Within an organization, public health services administrators are responsible for strategizing, coordinating, directing, and overseeing operations including the delivery of healthcare. Because the organization’s infrastructure is under the administrator’s oversight, public health services administrators must be knowledgeable in a variety of areas, such as:
- Financial management
- Handling of medical records
- Clinical patient care
- Facility operations and procedures
- Grants and accounting
The scope of a public health services administrator’s work is dependent on the size of the organization. In a larger facility or network of facilities, the public health worker might handle more individuals and have fewer areas of oversight. In smaller organizations, they might be responsible for managing all aspects of the operation.
Generally, the requirement for obtaining a position as a public health services agency administrator is a master’s degree in public health or an equivalent (e.g., master’s degree in health services administration, or MHA). Opportunities also generally exist for administrators to advance or transfer to other expanded administrative roles within an organization or to transfer to a different facility. Career growth is dependent upon many factors outside of education, including professional experiences, geographic location, and the type of health care agency.
Careers in Public Health Policy
Public health policy specialists fulfill similar roles as administrators because they typically work on the business end of public health. Public health services policy makers’ deal with the politics of public health including the laws and regulations that deal with the physical and mental health of individuals, as well as their social needs including transportation and shelter.
Public health policy specialists’ roles have several areas of oversight including:
- Health law and health care reform
- Bioethics as they pertain to law and reform
- Monitoring legislative activity pertinent to public health
- Minimizing inequity in terms of public health
- Determining how societal, economic, and cultural forces impact public health
- Analyzing public health data
Given the ever-changing nature of health care policy as well as the perpetual need for policy and policy improvement, there are many opportunities for professional advancement in the area of public health policy.
Careers in General Public Health
Public health professionals whose roles fall under the scope of general health handle a wide variety of tasks. Similar to health administrators, general public health specialists may work for federal or private for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, such as the CDC, hospitals, school districts, and boards of health. Within these structures, general health specialists function in roles overseeing programs and staff. The scope of their oversight can also include the following related areas:
- Managing employee roles and activities
- Evaluating services within the organization
- Fiscal accounting and oversight
- Making recommendations for improvement
- Assuring compliance with standards and guidelines
- Developing, coordinating and conducting health education programs
Professionals in public health are well equipped to undertake these roles in a variety of settings given the comprehensive nature of a public health services degree program. Those with a graduate degree are qualified for advancement within an organization and are prepared to oversee a broader range of functions. As with other administrative careers, the length of service, depth of experience, and other qualifications and certifications play a role in terms of how quickly one can advance and also factors into the total compensation potential.
Careers in Public Health & Nutrition
Prevalent issues facing public health include diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The CDC reports that heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung diseases account for the most deaths in the US and account for 86% of healthcare costs ($2.9 trillion in 2013). Public health nutritionists play an instrumental role in education and prevention through the evaluation and implementation of nutrition-based services.
Public health nutritionists work on local, national, and global scales to address nutrition and fitness-based public health issues. They may work in a variety of settings including:
- Research laboratories
- Residential facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, or prisons
- Public health departments
- Health clinics and clubs
- Health Maintenance Organizations
- Non-profit Organizations
Public health nutritionists work with individuals, families, and groups. The scope of their important work is often expansive. Depending on where they work, nutritionists’ roles can involve:
- Conducting evaluations of specific populations
- Developing and implementing preventative health programs
- Public outreach and education on diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure
- Working with clients to help them achieve improved health
- Dietary planning
Using their training in biologics, psychology, sociology, and mathematics, nutritionists are able to pursue administrative, community, and clinical roles. Given the increased attention to the need for clean-living, physical fitness, and nutrition, PublichHealth.org predicts an increase in demand for public health nutritionists will be in increasing demand.
Working in the Public Health Field
While there is a great deal of diversity respective to the types of public health professions available, the daily roles and responsibilities of public health professionals are similar, as are the tools they use.
Roles & Responsibilities
Public health professionals must be compassionate, excellent communicators, flexible, and have an avid interest in health care. On a day-to-day basis, public health professionals are expected to:
- Physically handle tasks and issues by making site visits, conducting interviews, mining data, and problem solving
- Be well versed in technology, assessing public health records and communication
- Directly communicate with co-workers, provide directives, discuss ideas, plan strategies, and coordinate activities.
Work face-to-face with patients and clients by conducting assessments, interviews or teaching classes.
Professional Tools & Resources
Public health professionals must be well versed on health-based research, while using the latest technology and resources to most effectively accomplish their goals. A few tools that are in every public health professional’s arsenal include:
- Current research in peer-reviewed journals such as the American Journal of Public Health
- Online publications from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Resource web pages, such as those from major health organizations. These resources are especially helpful for linking information to communities in need of education. They can be shared via e-mail or social media and distributed during site visits.
- Books, pamphlets, and other literature, such as online and print articles on current health issues.
- Educational videos posted to an organization’s website.
Professional Advancement in Public Health Careers
Public health professionals play an integral role in ensuring the local, national, and global health of individuals, families, and groups within communities of all varieties. They conduct valuable research, assess health problems within a community, and strive to promote overall health. They are trained to be communicative leaders who are flexible, compassionate, and enthusiastic. Public health professionals are analytical and knowledgeable in bioethics, nutrition, and psychology.
Using these skills, public health professionals are able to pursue meaningful careers that have a genuine and lasting impact on the heath of the community, be it a local, regional, or global community. Public health professionals are enjoying lucrative careers in important areas such as public health services administration, public health policy, general health and wellness, environmental health, and nutrition. Given the Federally projected growth in the public health professions in the coming years, an increased demand for public health professionals is anticipated.
If you are interested in entering or advancing your career the public health field and are seeking a stable, lucrative, and meaningful career, consider an online Master of Public Health degree from Creighton University.