Director of Federal Policy, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
While public health professionals affect the lives of virtually everyone on the planet, many people have never considered public health as a possible career path. Much as a physician works with an individual patient to prevent and cure diseases, public health professionals work to monitor and improve the health of populations. They work at the community, neighborhood, city, state, or even global level.
Although medical cures and treatments have increased human health and lifespans, the development of population-based programs that emphasize disease prevention and behavioral changes will significantly advance the reach of those discoveries. Antibiotic resistance, obesity, and other major health issues are large-scale problems that public health professionals will help solve by changing public attitudes and actions.
Public health professionals balance limited resources by considering not only the severity of the problem and the number of people affected by it but also how much of an impact health professionals can have on that particular issue. For example, public awareness campaigns about a new threat must include recommendations on what people should do (or not do) to prevent or cure the problem. Public health requires an understanding of both physical sciences (the biological basis of disease) and social sciences (how to persuade various population subsets to change attitudes or take action). This is a highly varied field, with many possible specialties.
Typical job duties may include:
Experts in environmental health and industrial hygiene are needed to ensure that communities and workplaces are safe from hazardous wastes and pollutants, and industrial hygiene officers look specifically at health and safety concerns in the workplace and develop systems to prevent adverse effects.
Epidemiologists investigate outbreaks of disease or other public health issues in order to understand and eliminate them. Field epidemiologists travel to the site of an unexplained disease outbreak and conduct interviews, observations, and surveys, as well as collect samples of blood and other bodily fluids, taking extensive safety precautions before interacting with samples or patients. The collected data must then be analyzed to identify the pathogen causing the disease, the method of transmission from person to person, and other important factors. They must identify the risk factors quickly, often before the disease progression is fully understood. The results of their findings must be communicated to the public and health care professionals to halt the current outbreak, and results are eventually communicated to policy makers to affect regulations that will prevent future occurrences. For example, in response to the AIDS epidemic, new tests were developed and new policies enacted to prevent the spread of HIV through blood transfusions.
Many public health careers involve educating others and using social science skills to determine a course of action. For example, when a certain population is shown to have a dietary deficiency, a public health professional would need to decide if they should encourage members of the population to take a supplement and/or eat foods that contain the nutrient they are deficient in or if they should lobby or mandate that industry add that nutrient to foods (like iodized salt, or fortification of flour with niacin, iron, and folic acid). The cost/benefit ratio of each option must be evaluated in the context of the specific characteristics of the population involved.
Health educators are medical professionals who are certified to work in a particular disease, helping patients understand their diagnosis and learn to manage their disease. They work one-on-one with newly diagnosed patients, create and distribute educational materials, work with community groups to identify specific needs, monitor educational programs to assess effectiveness, explain the disease to family members, and more.
An undergraduate degree may be acceptable for some entry-level positions, but many careers in public health will require an advanced degree, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH). A bachelor’s degree in chemistry followed by an MPH is good preparation for a career in environmental health. Health educators need a degree in nursing or medicine. Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree in public health, and medical science liaisons require a Ph.D. or PharmD and specific experience with a disease state.
Certification is available, and increasingly required, for many public health specialties. Some health educators must pass an exam to become a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES). This exam is usually taken immediately before or after earning a bachelor’s degree. Requirements vary by state and by specialization—for example, 1000 hours of diabetes education experience (400 hours in the past year) is required before you can take the Certified Diabetes Educator test. Certification can be important, as in some places only certified educators can be paid by health insurance providers.
Depending on your particular field and specialization, the work environment and expected hours can vary significantly. Heath educators may work with inpatients in a hospital setting or with outpatients in an office. They may also work in a doctor’s office, private business, college, or non-profit organization. Especially in rural areas, there may be a lot of traveling involved to reach the target population. Epidemiologists may do laboratory work, field work, or some combination of the two.
Many public health opportunities are in the governmental sector, or in hospitals or other health care facilities. Public health professionals can specialize in a certain disease, population, geographic, or other area. There are few well-defined career paths as well as multiple options for career progression.
Because the work public health professionals do is important for both preventative health care and emergency response, demand at the state and local government level is expected to be higher than average through 2020. The increasing use of electronic medical records is also greatly increasing the data resources epidemiologists and other public health officials have to draw on. Changes in health care regulations may have an effect on future demand for these careers.
If you have a strong desire to help make the world a healthier place, and you like thinking about the bigger picture, a career in public health may be right for you. You must be comfortable working with the cultural, as well as scientific, components of diseases and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills.
Job growth is predicted to be faster than average because of increased emphasis on prevention instead of treatment and an overall rise in the need for health care as the population ages.
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for some entry-level positions, but certification or an advanced degree may be required for advancement.