What exactly is public health? While doctors diagnose and treat patients individually, public health professionals do so on a grander scale. For example, a doctor may work with a patient to minimize the physical effects of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). A public health professional specializing in epidemiology might coordinate with community leaders to stop the spread of that very same STD. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the nation’s premier public health agency, the philosophy is simple: find out what’s making people sick and killing them, and then do the things that work to protect them and make them healthier.
During the 20th century, the average lifespan worldwide increased by 30 years. Twenty-five of the years can be attributed directly to advances in public health. These advances fall into three main categories: health, disease and safety.
Safer and Healthier Foods: Contaminated food, milk and water cause many infections, including typhoid fever, tuberculosis, botulism and scarlet fever. Initiatives to ensure safer and healthier foods have resulted in significant decreases in microbial contamination. The discovery of essential nutrients and their roles in disease prevention has been instrumental in reducing nutritional deficiency diseases such as goiter, rickets and pellagra in the United States.
Family Planning: Family planning health includes smaller family size and longer interval between the birth of children; increased opportunities for pre-pregnancy counseling and screening; fewer infant, child and maternal deaths; and the use of barrier contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and transmission of human immunodeficiency virus and other STDs.
Healthier Mothers and Babies: From 1915 through1997, the maternal mortality rate declined to less than 0.1 reported deaths per 1,000 live births, and the infant mortality rate fell to 7.2 per 1,000 live births. Environmental interventions, improvements in nutrition, advances in clinical medicine, increased access to health care, better disease surveillance and monitoring, and higher standards of living contributed to these remarkable declines.
Tobacco as a Health Hazard: Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease in the U.S. Recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard has resulted in restrictions on cigarette advertising, consumer education campaigns and initiatives aimed at reducing the population’s exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.
Immunizations: Since 1900, smallpox was eradicated through vaccinations. Vaccines have been developed or licensed against 21 other diseases, including polio and measles, dramatically reducing the incidence of infections and deaths.
Declines in Death from Heart Disease and Stroke: Heart disease and strokes together account for approximately 40 percent of all deaths in the United States. Since 1950, age-adjusted death rates from cardiovascular disease (CVD) have declined 60 percent, representing one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century.
Control of Infectious Diseases: Public health action to control infectious diseases in the 20th century were based on the 19th century discovery of microorganisms as the cause of many serious diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis. Improvements in sanitation and hygiene, the discovery of antibiotics, and the implementation of universal childhood vaccination programs, all contributed to infectious disease control.
Fluoridation of Drinking Water: Fluoridation of community drinking water is a major factor responsible for the decline in tooth decay during the second half of the 20th century. The history of water fluoridation is a classic example of clinical observation leading to epidemiologic investigation and community-based public health intervention.
Motor Vehicle Safety: Motor vehicle safety initiatives focus on protecting occupants and educating drivers and pedestrians. Seat belts, child safety seats, public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving and stricter laws and law enforcement are all results of public health efforts.
While many of these important initiatives are ongoing, the 21st century brings with it new public health challenges. Predominant among these are “diseases of comfort,” such as those caused by obesity and physical inactivity, a major focus of public health today. Many experts agree that major advances in public health improvement over the next decades will come not from new medical findings or cures, but from the development and application of population-based prevention programs.
Workplace Safety: Public health efforts have led to physical changes in the workplace, such as improved ventilation and dust suppression in mines; safer equipment; development and introduction of safer work practices; and improved training of health and safety professionals and of workers.
CAREERS IN PUBLIC HEALTH
The overall impact of public health professionals on global health and wellness is clear. Yet those in the field who make the difference do so in many different ways. Public health careers come in myriad shapes in sizes, from policy and legislation to research and community outreach. Some of public health’s most notable careers include the following:
Legislative Policy Advisor+
Those interested in improving public health may desire to get more involved on the legislative front by becoming a legislative policy advisor. These individuals conduct extensive research in key areas in an effort to either support or combat legislation that pertains to health and wellness.
In most instances, a bachelor’s degree is required to obtain a position as a legislative policy advisor. Public health advisors strongly influence politicians and members of Congress, helping to determine whether a bill passes or fails. Policy advisors earned an estimated $40,000 mean salary in 2012.
Individuals who enjoy planning and research, and who care about the community, may find that a career as a public health preparedness coordinator fits them well. This position is responsible for coordinating with emergency management services to investigate, prepare and respond to disasters of all types while keeping the health and safety of the public at the forefront.
Those interested in pursuing a career as a public health preparedness coordinator must possess an associate degree at minimum and four years of work-related experience in emergency services. However, the majority of these positions require a bachelor’s degree in emergency services, biological sciences or healthcare management, in addition to two years of work-related experience.
For those who enjoy researching, planning and implementing new programs that can benefit a company and its employees, a position as a corporate health director may be a good fit. This position requires the ability to be passionate about improving the safety and well being of others, as well as the ability to implement new strategies and manage staff.
A bachelor’s degree in public health, medicine, nutrition and other health studies is ideal for this position; however, business, marketing or communications degrees can also be beneficial. With a modest starting salary and the ability to benefit the lives of others, a corporate health director is a meaningful career.
Individuals with a strong desire to help communities respond to and prevent infectious disease may find a rewarding career as an International HIV Specialist. This position requires policy writing, course instruction and close work with patients. Those who decide to work overseas can also expect travel to severely underserved communities.
Although an undergraduate degree with a concentration in biology, education or psychology may be required, a master’s degree in public health with specialization in HIV/AIDS management is the ideal credential for this position.
Natural born leaders with a strong interest in oral health may want to pursue a career as a public health dentist. These professionals are responsible for policy development, health promotion, and the surveillance of oral health and maintenance of dental safety.
A doctoral degree is required for this position and with good reason. The epidemiology aspect of the job requires sound knowledge, while the development and implementation of new programs is not for the inexperienced.
The public health officer has a very challenging yet immensely rewarding position. These individuals perform countless hours of research, and plan and spearhead the design of innovative new health programs to implement in communities. These programs are often geared to help educate and improve the health of at-risk communities.
The doctoral degree in public health or medicine is required. With a very nice median pay rate and a career that impacts so many lives for the better, the public health officer is a very rewarding position.
People interested in making a difference in public health by challenging legal aspects of regulations and statutes should explore a career as a public health lawyer. This position comes with great responsibility, but with considerable rewards. These individuals take part in effecting the change that needs to occur for laws and policies to represent, define the care of and protect the general population.
A master’s degree in law is required to become a public health lawyer, while a doctorate degree or strong concentration in public health certainly increases marketability to potential employers.
For those with a strong interest in sociology, psychology, social work, anthropology and health communications, a career as a behavioral scientist may be a good fit. These individuals generally possess very diverse backgrounds in the social and medical sciences. Regardless of background, these specialists analyze, evaluate and design behavioral systems, spearhead public interventions and communicate and promote health programs. With employment opportunities available on federal, state and local levels, this career choice definitely offers the ability to continue moving forward. Entering this field at a competitive level requires advanced study, most notably a doctorate.
Science- and math-minded people who enjoy data and research, and who feel strongly about community health, may find the perfect career as a biostatistician. Armed with a graduate degree, these individuals play a key role in solving today’s foremost scientific challenges, from testing breakthrough drugs to evaluating cancer studies.
Public health professionals have solid earnings potential in a wide range of field-related occupations. While exact salary varies by education, experience and location, the following ranges provide a glimpse into what you can earn in one of these related careers.
Many certificates in public health are designed for working professionals who want to advance their undergraduate education, but who may not be ready to earn a master’s degree. Physicians, nurses, nutritionists and veterinarians may be prime candidates.
A bachelor of science in public health prepares graduates to work in public, private and non-profit sectors, helping to improve the quality of life of individuals and communities. Typical places of employment post-graduation include government health agencies, medical care services and educational institutions.
A master’s degree in public health, or MPH, offers a wide range of options for students interested in advanced study. In addition to a general master’s degree program in public health, many colleges and universities allow students to blend their MPH with other specialties, such as a master’s in business administration (MBA) or a master’s of science in nursing (MSN).
A doctorate in public health is the highest degree one can earn in the field. The degree tends to attract students who have earned a master’s in public health and want to enter public health leadership or university research.
Public health professionals protect the health of local, national and international communities. From promoting seatbelt use to monitoring pandemics, they impact our daily lives in both large and small ways. The federal government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative calls for an increased number of trained public health professionals to meet current and future demand. Opportunities in the field continue to expand, as do options for earning credentials online.
Students can earn an online public health degree from either a traditional college or one that is fully online. There are also options to enroll in blended programs where some of the coursework is completed online and some in a classroom. Certain programs allow students to combine the coursework of a bachelor’s and a master’s, enabling them to earn both degrees in less time.
Advantages of earning a public health degree online include:
Online learning can be done whenever it fits the student’s schedule. This is particularly beneficial for those who wish to work while in school.
Students have options for earning their degree on a full- or part-time basis. Programs can be tailored to best fit the student’s timetable.
Many online students report forging strong connections with their professors and peers.
While tuition is usually the same for online programs as for classroom-based ones, students can save money on expenses related to commuting, childcare and even room and board.
Online Public Health Degree Success
Students who are successful in the pursuit of an online public health degree often share certain characteristics. Like classroom learners, online students need to have self-discipline, good time management skills and stay on top of their schoolwork. Being comfortable with technology is also a requirement. Students need to be at ease communicating and interacting with other people without face-to-face contact.
Online Public Health Degree Accreditation
Whether online or classroom-based, the public health degree program you choose must be accredited. An accredited college or degree program has been assessed by an independent agency and found to meet certain quality standards. The college accreditation process ensures your education investment is protected. It weeds out fly-by-night schools and diploma mills focused on making a profit rather than on education. Accredited colleges will not accept credits from non-accredited institutions, an important consideration for those considering a master’s or who want to transfer to another school. And, very importantly, only accredited colleges and universities qualify for federal financial aid funds.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT ONLINE PUBLIC HEALTH DEGREES
Are online public health degree programs accepted by employers?
Most definitely. Even top universities today offer online degree programs where students earn the exact same diploma as those learning on campus. It’s often impossible for employers to tell how a degree was earned. As long as the online degree program has the proper accreditation, employers will accept the degree.
What types of public health degrees are available online?
Online public health degrees are available at every level – associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral. Online certificates in specific public health areas are also offered.
Is an online public health degree easier to complete than a classroom-based program?
No. Online degree programs carry the same accreditation as in-person programs. Some online courses can even more rigorous than their classroom-based counterparts due to the time management and self-discipline involved.
Are there opportunities to earn practical experience or study abroad through an online public health degree program?
Whether online or classroom-based, most public health degree programs require some sort of practical experience. Because the field has such global implications, study abroad experiences are also encouraged. Online public health degree programs work with students on an individual basis to ensure they gain field experience through internships, study abroad opportunities, or service learning projects.
Are scholarships available to students pursuing online public health degrees?
Students pursuing online public health degrees are eligible for the same local and national scholarships as those students pursuing classroom-based degrees. In addition, most schools offer their online students scholarships based on merit or financial need.
IS A CAREER IN PUBLIC HEALTH RIGHT FOR YOU?
The work of public health professionals varies greatly, depending on their area of expertise. On a given day, an epidemiologist might spend hours in a lab trying to identify the tipping point of a pandemic. A public health educator might hold a class on prenatal nutrition for expectant mothers. And a policy maker might testify in front of Congress about the need for childhood immunizations.
While their jobs are very different, public health professionals tend to share a core set of traits and skills. Take the following quiz and see if you have what it takes for a career in public health.
1. Do you want to make a difference on a large scale?
2. Do you enjoy working in community settings?
3. Are you comfortable working with people from other cultures?
4. Do you like to evaluate and solve problems?
5. Have you ever thought about being a doctor or a nurse?
6. Do you enjoy working with and analyzing data?
7. Do you constantly remind people to wash their hands?
8. Are you practical and methodological?
9. Are you a good project manager?
10. Are you results-oriented?
It looks like a career in public health may not be a great fit. However, you may possess the attributes necessary to succeed in other health-related careers.
It looks like you possess some of the skills, traits and interests shared by today's most successful public health professionals. However, you may need to develop certain areas during your education or training to maximize your effectiveness in the workplace.
It looks like you have many of the attributes found in today's top public health professionals. A formal degree program can help you hone those skills and launch a lucrative career.
TOP EMPLOYERS IN PUBLIC HEALTH
Public health professionals can find employment opportunities in both the public and the private spheres. In the public sector, nearly one-quarter of all public health employees works for local, state or federal government agencies. On the private side, hospitals and non-profit institutions account for a majority of the remaining openings. Let’s take a more detailed look at some of today’s most notable public health employers.
Public health students have a wide range of funding options available to help defray the cost of their degree program. Read about and find scholarships, grants, assistantships and other free money sources specific to the field.
In career fields such as public health, experience goes a long way. But relevant experience can be tough to build when a full-time student. Learn the keys to gaining marketable, professional experience in public health before graduation.