Public health covers a broad field of health programs with a focus on quality of life. Some major achievements in the field over the past century include vaccinations, safer workplaces, and the recognition of tobacco as a health hazard. The focus in public health is on health promotion and disease and injury prevention, in contrast to the clinical health care model that focuses on diagnosis and treatment. Public health professionals create healthy communities through education, research, and promotion of healthy lifestyles. If you want a career in public health, learn more about your options with our overview of specialties in the field, related careers, and other options for 21st-century public health.
Public Health Specialties
Public health careers can offer something for everyone, but a focus on a specialty can help determine your studies. The following specialties require vastly different educational backgrounds and work experiences. While there are over 20 major fields of study, the five core disciplines include:
- Social and Behavioral Sciences involves research that provides insights into the different ways individuals, groups, and institutions make decisions, exercise power, and respond to change.
- Environmental Health Science and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment by identifying problems and finding solutions that minimize hazards to the health of the environment and the population.
- Epidemiology involves investigation and description about the causes and spread of disease, and developing the means for prevention or control.
- Health Policy (Educators) and Health Management both involve encouraging healthy lifestyles and wellness through educating individuals and communities about behaviors that can prevent diseases, injuries, and other health problems.
- Biostatistics concerns collection, processing, and analysis of data, as well as the interpretation of experiments and survey results.
Students typically concentrate on one of those five core disciplines, but some choose to focus their studies on particular population groups or subject areas such as:
- International Health
- Mental Health
- Aging Studies
- Laboratory Practice
- Maternal and Child Health
- Nutrition and Dietetics
- Occupational Health and Safety
- Tropical Medicine
The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) launched an initiative in 2004 that promotes public health graduate study in one of the five core disciplines as well as an integrated and interdisciplinary set of overall competency domains for a master’s degree in public health (MPH). The domains listed below were added to provide leadership that can face the challenges of 21st century public health practice:
- Communication and Informatics
- Diversity and Culture
- Program Planning
- Public Health Biology
- Systems Thinking
It helps to learn your strengths and interests even before you enter college, as you can plan your education beginning in high school. You can shape your undergraduate degree to a specific discipline, such as biology for research or business courses for a career in health management. A graduate degree can hone those skills to shape your future as a leader in any one of the core public health disciplines.
Understanding 21st-Century Public Health
If you can visualize how health care might change over the next few decades, then you can plan for the right career choice using the five major core disciplines. The following list includes priorities within public health now and focuses on solutions over the next decade. The following chart shows that life expectancy has improved even over the past three decades because of decreases in certain diseases. In 2007, life expectancy at birth was 77.9 years, increasing by 0.2 years from 77.7 years in 2006.
Public health education, especially in the areas of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes has helped to increase the life expectancy. The difference can be amazing, but more work needs to be done. The increase in life expectancy in 2007 from 2006 for the population as a whole could have been greater than 0.2 years were it not for increases in mortality from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis and suicide.
The links in the following list lead to government sites concerned with the development of various public health issues. You can use those links to learn more about certain disciplines as well as conduct further research into what you might want to choose as your public health career.
- Social and Behavioral Sciences: A focus on women’s health, maternal and child health and substance abuse includes education for populations of all ages across the globe. Large parts of the developing world are plagued by largely preventable, yet treatable, infectious diseases and poor maternal and child health outcomes, which are exacerbated by malnutrition and poverty. In the U.S., the use of psychotherapeutic drugs is a growing health issue. The following chart shows nonmedical use of types of psychotherapeutic drugs among persons aged twelve or older between 2002-2010:
- Environmental Health Science: Environmental and workplace safety and health have become key components in healthier lives. Teaching communities how to be safe from toxic wastes has become just as important as helping to increase industrial hygiene and reduce industrial pollution. Work in environmental health also can include public policy, social and behavioral sciences, education and health care management.
- Epidemiology: This is the cornerstone for public health research, and it involves the design of studies, collection and statistical analysis of data, and interpretation and dissemination of results. With an increased interest in bioterrorism, this field will continue to grow. Other areas that need attention include outbreak investigation, disease surveillance and screening, biomonitoring, and comparisons of treatment effects such as in clinical trials.
- Health Education: Major advances in quality of life will come from the application of population-based prevention programs, which involves public education. Greater emphasis already is placed on health promotion and disease prevention as a means to reduce the costs of health care. These changes create a broad array of new opportunities for professionals with advanced training in public health and for management of facilities that offer these services.
- Biostatistics: An increase in the application of statistics to a wide range of topics in biology continues to grow, especially in agriculture, environmental health, nutrition and diet, population genetics and in ecological forecasting. Additionally, statisticians now are integrating statistical methods into medical informatics, public health informatics, bioinformatics and computational biology. This field is predicted to grow rapidly over the next few years.
What if you finish your graduate degree in public health and you discover, after ten years in the field of epidemiology, that you want to change your career? You have several options available to you. You can return to school to earn another master’s degree in a different field, you can go on to earn a doctoral degree and teach or conduct research, or you can find work in a related field.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides related career options on every page of their online Occupation Outlook Handbook. If you want to find a related career option for epidemiology, click on the “Related Occupations” link at the top of the epidemiology career page. You’ll learn that your education and work experience are suited to the following related careers:
- Biological Scientists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment. While a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be sufficient for some jobs in this field, a a PhD is usually necessary for independent research, especially in academia, as well as for advancement to administrative positions.
- Health Educators work to encourage healthy lifestyles and wellness through educating individuals and communities about behaviors that can prevent diseases, injuries, and other health problems. You may only need further training in a health education program.
- Medical Scientists research human diseases and conditions with the goal of improving human health. A PhD in a biological science is the minimum education required for most prospective medical scientists.
- Physicians and Surgeons diagnose illnesses and prescribe and administer treatment for people suffering from injury or disease. This career may require four more years of medical school, and three to eight years of internship and residency, depending on the specialty selected.
As you can see from the list shown above, every related field for the epidemiologist requires a PhD and further training. However, if you feel that this change is right for you, you’re already on the right path with your current educational choices.
Which Path Will You Choose?
Narrowing public health career options down to five disciplines may help you choose the career that’s right for you. Understanding the challenges facing communities in this century can also help you choose your path. Public health careers are exciting, and overcoming obstacles can be rewarding, especially if you can make a positive change in helping people understand healthier living standards.
If you take time now to understand your strengths and preferences, this work can pay off when you search for schools that match your career goals. If you prefer sciences to math, you might look at environmental sciences. If you like law and policy, public health care management might suit you best. No matter which goal you choose, a master’s degree in public health can put you in a leadership position when you graduate.