What is Public Health?
Public health is a widely varied group of occupations that center on promoting and protecting the health of people. That is, unlike doctors who are responsible for treating people that are already ill, public health workers seek to prevent illness from occurring in the first place. Public health workers achieve that goal through various means.
On the one hand, workers in this field engage in scientific research to learn more about new and old illnesses, health issues that afflict certain populations of people, and devise methods of treating all forms of illnesses. On the other hand, many public health workers seek to promote healthy behaviors.
For example, public health workers might engage in an educational campaign that teaches children about what it means to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Likewise, public health workers might run vaccination clinics to help prevent the spread of disease amongst vulnerable populations.
Public health is also responsible for tracking illnesses and diseases. If there’s an outbreak of the flu, for example, public health workers record how many people are afflicted with the illness and enter it into a national database so agencies like the Centers for Disease Control can get a better picture of the scope of the problem and the areas and populations in which the illness is spreading.
In other words, public health is, in a very real sense, a field of work that’s responsible for the health and safety of every man, woman, and child.
What is a Public Health Degree?
A public health degree can take many forms, each of which offers a different level of training for public health workers. These degree programs can take anywhere from two years to more than five years to complete and require students to have mastery of many varied topics in public health. However, the common thread between these public health degrees is that they are focused on preparing students to help improve the health of the world around them.
Associate Degree in Public Health
An associate’s degree in public health is typically a two-year program that gives students a basic introduction to topics in this field. Given that this degree is the most basic of degrees in this field, the admissions requirements are the least stringent. Often, these programs require students to have graduated from high school or hold a GED and have satisfactory scores on a college entrance exam for admission.
Of the 60 or so credit hours that are generally required to complete an associate’s degree, approximately half are general education courses – science, math, and English composition, for example – and the other half are focused on public health. Public health courses at this level include, but are not limited to:
- Psychology – Students learn about human behavior, including what drives people to behave in the manner that they do.
- Health & wellness – These courses are designed to give students insights into healthy living practices and the wellness techniques that can be used to promote overall well being.
- Public health systems – Students explore the structure and function of various kinds of healthcare systems as well as the organizational structure of health systems, their function, and purpose.
- Concepts in public health – Coursework in this area gives students a better understanding of the history of public health and the core concepts that drive public health policy.
Public Health Bachelor’s Degrees
The next step in obtaining an education in public health is a bachelor’s degree. These degrees usually require 120 course credits, which one can expect to complete in four years of full-time study. Building on the introductory coursework that’s completed at the associate’s level, bachelor’s degree programs seek to provide students with greater challenges and more advanced studies.
Given that this degree is more than just an introduction to the field of public health, the admissions requirements are more demanding of students. In addition to having a high school diploma or GED, students often must have a satisfactory high school GPA, satisfactory scores on the SAT or ACT exam, and letters of recommendation that speak to their character and to substantiate their commitment to education.
Bachelor’s degree programs in public health typically require students to complete courses such as:
- Preventative health theory – Students learn about effective strategies that are used to promote health and wellness in different populations.
- Health informatics – This course is designed to help students learn how to use data to make informed decisions about health and wellness policy and to assist healthcare providers in collaborating with one another to improve their services to patients.
- Epidemiology – Students learn how to study diseases and their spread among certain populations.
- Environmental health – Coursework in environmental health examines the relationship between people and their health and the environment in which they live.
Public Health Master’s Degrees
Though many jobs in public health require just a bachelor’s degree, having a master’s degree in public health can open up many more job opportunities for students. Master’s degree programs vary widely in their requirements, with some programs requiring about 30 credit hours for completion and others requiring over 60 credits. Shorter 30-credit programs can usually be completed in two years while longer programs could take three or four years to complete.
Master’s programs are yet another step in advancement of studies in public health, and as such, the admissions requirements are more stringent than for bachelor’s degree programs. Typically, master’s programs require prospective students to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution as well as a satisfactory collegiate GPA. Letters of recommendation from undergraduate professors are commonly required, as is an in-person interview with an admissions committee.
At the master’s level, specialization of study is more pronounced, with advanced courses in the following areas commonly required:
- Health and social behavior – Students examine the interplay between one’s social practices and their overall physical and mental health.
- Global health – This course focuses on health trends in various populations around the world, including the spread of disease, mental health trends, and capacity for addressing health issues in different regions.
- Occupational health – The study of occupational health involves a deep analysis of the physical and mental well being of workers and methods that can be used to prevent injury and illness in the workplace.
- Health policy – Coursework in health policy revolves around examining past, present, and possible future trends in health policy, an analysis of effective health policy, and research into ways that health policy can be improved to be more effective.
- Internship – Many public health master’s degree programs require students to participate in an internship in which they work in a real-world setting to apply what they’ve learned over the course of their studies.
Public Health Ph.D. Degrees
The highest degree available in public health is a Ph.D. Doctorate programs are also the most difficult to get into, with not just degree and GPA requirements to fulfill (i.e., having a master’s degree and a GPA of at least 3.0) but also personal requirements that must be met, such as demonstrating a commitment to public health through demonstrable volunteer activities, scientific research, and the like.
Like master’s degree programs, Ph.D. programs vary in their length, from three years on the short side to more than five years for some programs.
The primary focus of Ph.D. programs is to give students yet more advanced opportunities to expand their studies combined with opportunities for research and independent study. Common courses at this level include:
- Biostatistics – Biostatistics is the study of mathematical processes that can be used to better understand trends in public health.
- Development of community-based programs – This course prepares students to develop community health programs based on proven models of public health.
- Public health policy and politics – Students examine the role of politics in the process of public health policy and explore methods of advocating on behalf of health care organizations.
- Dissertation – Many Ph.D. programs require students to complete a dissertation on an approved topic. Dissertations involve many months of research and preparation for the defense of the student’s findings before a panel of professors.
What is an Online Public Health Degree?
Where other areas of study have less of a selection of online degrees, online public health degrees are quite abundant from the associate’s degree level all the way to the Ph.D. level.
The primary advantage of studying online is that most online programs in public health offer students much more flexibility. That is, students can typically learn at their own pace, completing coursework as their work schedule or family life allows. That is, rather than having to attend a course at a specific time, place, and date, online students can work on their studies morning, noon, or night.
Online public health degree programs often have components that make online learning an easier and more fruitful experience. Students can interact with their classmates and professors via video chat, chat rooms, emails, and other technologies. Collaboration is often emphasized with projects and assignments that encourage students to work with one another, even though students might be on opposite sides of the country.
Studying online allows students to take the same classes with the same professors and learn the same concepts all from the comfort of their own home. Without the added expense of commuting to campus, paying for parking, or paying to live on campus, online students often see a savings on their education by studying online as well.
What Can You Do With a Public Health Degree?
Child Health Specialist
Child health specialists strive to help improve the health and well being of children under the age of 18. This career specialty usually requires at least a bachelor’s degree, with some positions requiring a master’s degree. As of 2017, one could expect to earn an average of $51,000 per year in this position.
Community Nutrition Specialist
Workers in this field specialize in educating groups, neighborhoods, and communities about healthy eating habits and raising awareness about nutrition and proper diet. Typically, these positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in public health or a closely related field. The average salary for health educators, of which community nutrition specialists are a part, was $53,940 per year as of May 2017.
Community Health Worker
Community health workers seek to implement community-based programs that advocate for better health, such as providing free blood pressure screenings, parenting courses on nutrition, and the like. These positions are most typically held by workers with a bachelor’s degree and pay an average annual wage of $38,730 per year, as of 2017.
Corporate Wellness Coordinator
Public health workers that specialize in corporate wellness work for large companies and develop programs that promote the health and wellness of the company’s workers through educational programs, exercise programs, and the like. Entrance into this career path requires just a bachelor’s degree, though a master’s degree would result in higher pay. The average annual wages for a corporate wellness coordinator in 2018 was $43,896 per year.
An epidemiologist studies the causes of diseases, illnesses, and injuries, as well as how diseases spread from one population to the next. Though some positions exist for epidemiologists with a master’s degree, the most advanced and lucrative positions are reserved for workers with a Ph.D. Epidemiologists earn excellent wages of just under $70,000 per year, as of May 2017.
Global Health Worker
Global health workers take their skills and put them to use in areas around the world, seeking to minimize illness, injury, and disease among local populations and promoting practices that help improve overall health. These positions are usually reserved for individuals with a master’s degree or Ph.D. Earnings vary widely for these positions, but health workers employed by government agencies earned an average of $55,420 in 2017.
Health educators teach people of all ages how to live healthier lives. Educators might be teachers in middle schools or high schools or roving educators that work with community organizations. A bachelor’s degree is needed to be a health educator, while a master’s degree is usually preferred. The annual salary for health educators in May 2017 was $53,940.
Health Policy Analyst
Health policy analysts examine health policies that are mandated by organizations and governments with the purpose of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the policy and outlining how they can be improved. A master’s degree is typically the minimum education required for these positions. As of 2017, one could expect to earn nearly $60,000 per year in this position.
Health Service Manager
Typically employed in a healthcare setting like a hospital, health service managers are responsible for ensuring that high-quality health services are provided to patients in a timely and efficient manner. A master’s degree is most commonly required for positions in this field. The average yearly salary for health services managers in 2017 was $98,350.
Public Health Administrator
A public health administrator manages and leads healthcare organizations like hospitals, HMOs, and public health systems. These positions require at least a master’s degree, with many positions preferring a Ph.D. in public health administration. Earnings for this career were quite robust in 2018, with average annual earnings of $65,321.
Workers in this career area concentrate on making the public aware of public health concerns. Likewise, outreach specialists often devise programming for the public to educate them on critical health topics. These positions are most often filled by workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The earnings one could expect to earn as an outreach specialist in 2017 was $63,833.
What Does It Take To Get a Degree in Public Health?
To get a degree in public health, it’s helpful for students to have certain skills, traits, and qualities. Among some of the most important skills and qualities for a student in public health to have include, but are not limited to:
- Health informatics skills – Being able to collect, analyze, and interpret health-related data is one of the most important hard skills that students acquire when studying public health.
- Health research skills – Students must possess the ability to create and test hypotheses for the purposes of researching health-related questions.
- Systems thinking – Students in public health need to be able to understand large and small health systems and problems from a macro level and learn how to see the interrelationships between different parts of the system.
- Understanding of biostatistics – Students in this area of study should be proficient in the use of statistical analyses for better understanding health-related issues.
- Computer skills – Public health students will utilize computers and computer programs at every step of their education, so computer literacy is a must.
- Communication skills – Public health workers spend much of their time providing information to and getting information from people. Learning to actively listen, write, and speak well is a must for students.
- Interpersonal skills – Careers in public health put workers in positions of providing services to people of all kinds. Having the capacity for building relationships with very diverse people will only help students achieve their goals.
- Ability to work as part of a team – Many of the tasks before public health workers require people to work well as part of large and small teams.
- Flexibility – Working in public health necessitates having an attitude that embraces change, fast-paced work, and adaptability to changing conditions.
What Tools and Technologies are Used by Public Health Professionals?
Public health professionals make use of a wide variety of tools and technologies to make their jobs easier and more efficient. These include, but are not limited to:
Strangely enough, public health professionals use Twitter to track the spread of diseases and illnesses by examining the number of mentions of keywords like “flu.”
Many people in rural areas and the developing world do not have immediate access to public health services, so public health professionals are turning to mobile phones, tablets, and computers to connect people with healthcare professionals.
Geospatial technology like GeoHealth Innovations allows public health professionals to track health-related issues based on geographic location.
Solvability and Control Matrices
This matrix provided by the Public Health Foundation helps professionals in this field determine what health problems can be solved and provides a roadmap for solving those problems.
Quality Improvement Yools
A large part of public health is organizing and disseminating large amounts of information. By using quality improvement tools, public health officials can ensure that the information they provide to the public is both quick and error-free.
What are the Benefits of a Degree in Public Health?
A degree in public health offers students many different benefits that can help them both personally and professionally. Some of the most important benefits include:
- Easy availability – Public health degrees are great in number at all levels, and can be found at most colleges and universities as well as online.
- Strong job growth – Careers in public health are growing rapidly with no end in sight to that rapid growth.
- Variety of work – A public health degree can lead to any number of career paths, from advocacy to research, community health promotion to health administration, and many points in between.
- Immediate employment – Since this field of work is growing so quickly, many graduates of a public health degree find that jobs are readily available right after graduation.
- Opportunity to effect change – With a degree in public health, students have an opportunity to make positive changes on the health and well being of their fellow community members.
- Opportunity to travel – Many workers in the public health realm enjoy traveling around their state, country, and even around the world to promote improved health.
- Wide-ranging positive impacts – A degree in public health means that students have the knowledge and skills to have an impact on everything from improving healthcare in rural areas to providing vaccines to children to reducing the incidence of workplace-related injuries.
- High job satisfaction – A degree in public health opens doors to careers that have very high satisfaction ratings.
- Exciting work – Public health is a rapidly growing and quickly changing field. Students with degrees in this field can expect to find exciting work throughout their careers.
How Much Can You Make With a Public Health Degree?
Careers in public health are not known for excellent incomes. However, one can earn a decent and livable wage working in public health. According to a May 2017 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health workers can expect to earn an average annual salary of $38,370. That figure rises to $64,500 per year for the highest 10 percent of earners while the lowest 10 percent of earners make less than $25,150 per year.
One’s level of education has a significant impact on the salary that can be earned. A bachelor’s degree in public health will often result in average or perhaps even lower-than-average wages while a master’s degree will typically garner a stronger compensation package. Public health workers with a doctoral degree can expect an even higher salary.
The employment setting is another important factor that strongly influences how much public health workers earn. For example, according to the BLS, hospitals pay health workers an average of $46,350 per year while outpatient care centers pay just $35,370 per year.
What is the Job Outlook for Public Health Careers?
The job outlook for careers in public health is very strong. In fact, the BLS expects it to be one of the most rapidly growing career areas over the next decade or so. Average growth is considered to be in the 6 percent range, but public health careers are expected to grow at a 16 percent rate through 2026. Community health, which is a niche within the public health sector, can expect even more robust growth – 18 percent over the next few years.
The expected strong development of public health careers is directly related to the ongoing efforts by healthcare companies, communities, government agencies, and the like to promote healthy behaviors and lifestyles in order to reduce crushing medical and insurance prices. That is, rather than continuing to be a reactive society to illness and disease and focusing so much time, money, and effort on treatment, there is a strong shift toward prevention of illness and disease through the promotion of healthy living practices and education about available health services. That paradigm shift toward prevention is fueling the rapid growth of this career area.
What Professions are Similar to Public Health?
Public health is a very broad sphere of careers that have the common thread of promoting health and well being among the population. Some similar careers to public health include:
Dieticians and Nutritionists
Workers in this field seek to promote healthier living by working with people to improve their food selection and diet. Improving nutritional intake through meal planning and appropriate dieting, alongside promoting exercise and healthy living choices are primary goals of dieticians and nutritionists.
Epidemiologists study diseases. Not only are they responsible for investigating how diseases form, spread, and impact the population, but they are also responsible for tracking diseases, analyzing data about the populations diseases impact, and developing methods of reducing risk and spread of diseases.
Jobs in the medical science field revolve around conducting research in the name of improving human health. This most often takes the form of designing and carrying out clinical trials to investigate specific hypotheses, and then collecting, analyzing, and reporting on their findings.
Registered nurses provide direct care to patients and coordinate with other medical professionals to ensure that patients that are ill or injured have the appropriate treatments. In addition to monitoring a patient’s progress, registered nurses are often responsible for administering medicine, assisting doctors in surgery, recording vital signs, and teaching patients how to manage their illness or injury upon release from the hospital.