What Is Public Health And What Are the Job Options for Its Students?

What is public health?
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So you want to work in healthcare but you’re not sure you want to be a doctor or a nurse?

I have good news. You don’t have to be.

It turns out that there are a variety of different ways that you can work in the healthcare industry without having to operate on patients or wear scrubs every day (though if this is what you’d like to do, we have a bunch of helpful posts about careers in nursing, too).

One of the ways you can enter into this field without going on the med school track is by choosing to study public health instead.

Not sure what public health is? Don’t worry. Neither did I.

It wasn’t until a close friend of mine decided to go to grad school for it, that I heard about this alternate form of healthcare.

And still, I was pretty confused about where it fit into the industry. Even after she explained the idea behind public health—focusing on the prevention of health problems—I wasn’t quite sure how that would be put into practice. What sort of job would that lead to? How do you even go about preventing diseases?

So I decided to take a closer look at this type of healthcare and see just what these students are learning and what jobs they could get after college.

Here’s your quick guide to the field of public health.

What is public health?

According to The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), “public health protects and improves the health of individuals, families, communities, and populations, locally and globally.”

It’s a type of healthcare that works on the prevention of health problems. Because of this, the focus is primarily on a population or community rather than an individual.

[Editor’s note: The ASPPH website is phenomenal. Not only does it give descriptions of the different focuses within the field, but also includes interviews with a variety of different professionals working in the field. If you’re at all interested in this type of healthcare, go check out the ASPPH site!]

Because health problems stem from all manner of sources—diet, lifestyle, environment, genetics, aging, psychological factors—careers in public health can go in an almost endless number of directions.

That is part of the reason it is so difficult to pin down specific careers for students interested in this field. To help solve this problem, I thought I’d take a closer look at the most common areas of public health that students can choose to focus on.

Different areas within the field of public health:

  • Biostatistics

This area of public health is very mathematical. It may seem strange to take something like health and turn it into a series of numbers and charts, but that’s just what this area of public health does. The data collection and analysis done by statisticians is used to reveal trends in health, consider likelihoods for disease transmission, and conduct clinical trials with new drugs.

They will create and conduct studies to figure out what factors contribute to certain health problems, how effective a new drug is, and health risks of products or diseases due to different factors.

This area of public health requires at least a B.S. in Statistics, Biostatistics, or Mathematics and is often followed by a graduate degree in a similar field or in public health.

Professionals working in this area of public health can expect a pretty typical 40-hour work week and find jobs in government agencies, research centers,  or with medical device manufacturers or pharmaceutical companies.

Curious about salary and job outlook for biostatisticians? About.com goes into detail about a career in this field here.

  • Epidemiology

This area of public health is focused on preventing and controlling disease. There is a lot of overlap with epidemiology and biostatistics and some schools will combine the two focuses. While focusing strongly on mathematics, students will learn to collect and analyze data to develop hypotheses about diseases, their causes, and what can be done to prevent them.

According to The UAB School of Public Health an epidemiologist might:

  • monitor reports of communicable diseases in a community.
  • study diets and explore whether a particular component influences the risk of developing cancer.
  • evaluate the effectiveness and impact of a cholesterol awareness program.
  • analyze historical trends and current data to project future public health resource needs.

The Minnesota Department of Health differentiates between two types of epidemiologists:

  1. Chronic disease epidemiologists—those who study things like birth defects or how effective a cancer treatment is.
  2. Infectious disease epidemiologists—those who research different diseases that spread from one person to another.

An epidemiologist can find work in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research centers at universities, and with health insurance companies. The data collection and analysis that epidemiologists do in these settings will help to put new practices in place and/or create new medical devices/medicine.

Want to learn more? You can check out U.S. News’s summary of an epidemiologist’s work here.

  • Health Education

This area of public health is focused on educating a community/population about preventative health care. Students who choose to focus on this area of public health will learn how different activities shape the health of a community/population. They will learn how to create and implement their own programs to inform a population about the causes of health problems and how you can prevent them.

A lot of the work that this type of public health professional does is targeted toward changes that can be made in a community’s lifestyle, work, and/or culture. Because of that, you’ll find a lot of these professionals in public health departments, community agencies, and schools.

Explorehealthcareers.org lists some of the work that health educators do as:

  • stopping the spread of STIs.
  • spreading awareness about alcohol and drug abuse.
  • reducing obesity.
  • working with the aging population to keep up quality of life.
  • creating and working on health initiatives such as deterring smoking and enhancing sanitation.

After graduating with a degree in health education, this man found that he didn’t have the “experience” that employers were looking for. He didn’t let that discourage him. Instead, he started his own initiative to educate and improve the health of people in his community.

  • Health Administration

This area of study will have a lot of focus on developing management and administration skills. Students who choose to pursue this path will learn about subjects like public health law, marketing, budgeting, geographic information systems (GIS), performance measurement, human resources, and health information management.

Graduates who have chosen to focus on health administration are found in all types of health organizations. Administrators are needed in just about every setting and are the ones who keep the clinic, hospital, or organization running smoothly. Implementing and keeping policies in place, keeping track of finances, this job consists of all the typical administrative duties as well as a thorough knowledge of the healthcare industry.

WorldWideLearn gives a very detailed description of health administration jobs in their post here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the business side of healthcare, you might want to check out these roles at Kaiser Permanente.

  • Environmental Health Sciences

Students in this area of public health will focus on the environmental factors that impact the health of a population—environmental contaminants, radioactive materials, bacteria, chemicals, and human and industrial wastes. These students will learn to assess the effects of these harmful factors and then work to find ways to measure and control them.

Professionals in this area of public health will work in government agencies like the EPA, research centers, health departments, and private industries.

If you’re not very interested in having an office job, you might consider going down this path. Environmental Health Specialists are often working out in the environments they’re studying.

Homework time! Do any of these careers in public health catch your eye? Delve in a little deeper. Start researching to learn more about that part of public health. Remember that wanting a career in healthcare doesn’t mean you have to become a nurse or doctor. Public health is a growing field with a lot of different opportunities. You might also want to look into occupational therapy careers as well.

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