What exactly is public health? Public health is the medico-scientific study of communicable disease transmission and lifestyle-related health issues in different populations, including everything from dietary concerns in individual communities around the U.S. to the source and progression of global pandemics. Under the umbrella of public health, government agencies, non-profits, and healthcare organizations cooperate to identify, prevent, and respond to health threats using everything from information and outreach, to vaccine deployment strategies.
While doctors diagnose and treat patients individually, public health professionals promote health on a broader 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 those 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.
Communities rely on public health services delivered at the local level, from the outreach workers who check up on local homeless populations and direct them to shelters and other resources, to the public health program directors that see to it funding is allocated in ways that meet the needs of a particular community, whether through veterans resources, opioid overdose prevention programs, or implementing local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs. Also, in its Healthy 2020 initiative, the federal government called for an increase in public health experts across the country to prevent and treat diseases, identify potential threats, and facilitate collaboration both within and across communities. The good news is that making communities healthier really is a goal we can achieve. That’s largely thanks to the fact that quality degrees in public health and related majors are widely available through flexible online programs that help make the eduction it takes to get into the field more accessible.
Online Public Health Degrees
Many students may ask how an online degree in public health works. How can something that requires hands-on
training and patient interaction work via online learning? Colleges and universities across the U.S. address
these challenges in two specific ways. (1) Hybrid learning.
Part of the curriculum is delivered online, including exams, exercises and lectures delivered either live through video streams or asynchronously through videos. Even
much of the routine collaboration with professors and peers can take place remotely. Often students in hybrid programs would only visit campus for project work with classmates, or to participate in a lab or observation at a clinic the school partners with. (2) Targeted programs.
It’s true that many public health programs call for in-person work, yet some don’t. For example, an
established professional looking to add management qualifications can take online MPH courses entirely from home.
When considering an online degree in public health, it’s important to assess why the online learning mode
could be the better option. Key benefits of online learning in public health 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 to earn a degree on a full or part-time basis. Programs can be tailored to best fit the student’s timetable.
Social Distance Learning
If a student feels comfort in a learning environment without being surrounded by classmates; online learning options are a great solution.
Live-streamed synchronous classes allow online students to interact with professors and peers.
Online programs are accessible to anyone, anywhere. Students have all kinds of different professional backgrounds. This diversity can expose online students to unique and eyeopening perspectives, creating a richer educational experience.
Whether online or classroom-based, the public health degree program you choose should be offered at an accredited school to ensure it has been assessed by an independent agency and found to meet certain quality standards. Accreditation is also a consideration when it comes to credit transferability for anybody who might be thinking about the possibility of pursuing more advanced degrees at different stages in their career. And, very importantly, only accredited colleges and universities qualify for federal financial aid funds.
Accredited Public Health Schools: Not everyone in the U.S. lives close enough to a college campus to make earning a degree a viable option without the added expense of relocating. In the last few decades, the proliferation of online degree programs have solved this problem. And today, in the post-COVID era, attending class remotely is more the rule than the exception. With the connectivity it takes to deliver a great learning experience to virtually anybody in the world now widely available, there are fewer barriers to getting a quality education from a respected institution. No matter where you happen to live, you can attend class from the comfort of home, the coffee shop up the street, or your local library.
Traditional colleges that offer online degree programs usually receive accreditation from one of seven regional accreditation agencies recognized by (CHEA). Online schools may earn further accreditation via the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). In addition, schools have the option of seeking accreditation for their public health programs from The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). Before enrolling at a college or majoring in public health, make sure each educational option you vet carries the proper credentials and accreditation.
FAQs: Online Public Health Degrees
ARE ONLINE PUBLIC HEALTH DEGREE PROGRAMS RECOGNIZED IN THE FIELD?
Most definitely. Even top universities today offer online degree programs where students take on the same curriculum and earn the exact same diploma as those learning on campus.
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. Exact degree and certificate program offerings vary from school to school.
IS AN ONLINE PUBLIC HEALTH DEGREE EASIER TO COMPLETE THAN A CLASSROOM-BASED PROGRAM?
No. Accredited online degree programs carry the same accreditation as in-person programs, which mean they have similar, if not identical, academic requirements and expectations. Some online courses can be even more rigorous than their classroom-based counterparts due to the time management and self-discipline involved. It’s easy to stay on top of things when you have a professor in front of you, reminding you of upcoming deadlines and assignments or calling on you to participate in classroom discussions. Distance learners may need to be more proactive and take initiative in order to keep up and get things done.
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, particularly at the graduate and doctoral degree levels. 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?
The eligibility criteria for any merit-based or needs-based scholarship is determined by the organization that's funding it. You won't usually find that earning a degree online is a disqualifier, especially now as more programs make an effort to deliver classes remotely.
Find a Career
For anyone not ready to enroll in a degree program or to select a career path, a little exploration and research can go a long way. Do you have the skills, traits and interests to go into public health? Have you considered which area you might work in and how to get there? Find out by taking the personality quiz available in the Explore section.
PUBLIC HEALTH CAREER FIT QUIZ
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.
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 span a diverse array of roles, from policy and advocacy to scientific research and community outreach. Some of the most notable careers in public health include:
Anybody interested in contributing to public health at a policy level might consider a role as a legislative policy advisor. Entering the field with a bachelor’s degree, advisors work with legislators at every level to advocate for public health policy, and sometimes even participate in drafting bills that eventually become law. They also conduct extensive research in key areas in an effort to either support or combat legislation that affects health and wellness.
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 for and respond to disasters of all types while keeping the health and safety of the public at the forefront.
Experience can go a long way in this area. It's possible for public health preparedness coordinators to hold an associate degree when it's backed up with several years of job experience in emergency services or a bachelor's in an area like emergency services, healthcare management, or even a degree in the biological sciences.
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. It's a job that comes with a lot of responsibilities, but it's a meaningful line of work that can help you make a real difference in people's lives.
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.
If you have a strong interest in dental science in the context of community health, you may want to pursue a career in public health dentistry. These professionals are responsible for everything from policy development to health promotion as it applies to dental care and hygiene.
A DDS or DMD is the standard requirement to practice dentistry in the United States. On top of that, the epidemiological aspect of public health dentistry requires specialized knowledge, while the development and implementation of new public health programs is not for the inexperienced. This makes selecting appropriate electives along the way to earning a doctorate a wise idea.
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.
Like any other field of law, you'll need to complete a pre-law program at the bachelor's level before going on to law school and earning the Juris Doctorate required to be eligible to take the Bar exam. If you're not ready to go through the years-long process required to practice law, earning an associate's in paralegal studies could give you a chance to get into the field in an entry-level support role assisting attorney's who practice public health law.
For those with a strong interest in sociology, psychology, social work, (about: social work licensure) anthropology and health communications, a career as a behavioral scientist may be a good fit. Hailing from diverse backgrounds in the social and medical sciences, behavioral scientists in public health work to identify the social factors that contribute to the kinds of behaviors tied to health problems that fall squarely within the scope of public health. This could include everything from smoking and excessive drinking to opioid abuse to poor dietary choices. Behavioral scientists specialize in designing and evaluating behavioral studies that inform the types of programs that get rolled out in different communities. Entering this field at a competitive level requires advanced study, with many in the field holding master's degrees and even doctorates.
For more information about working in public health, please visit our in-depth guide to public health careers.
Public health professionals can be found working in government, private industry and for non-profit organizations. Let’s take a more detailed look at some of today’s most notable public health employers.
The master's in public health (MPH) is a well-recognized and well-respected advanced credential for professionals in the field. Find out more about online programs available to you, how to get started, and how graduates make the transition from college to career.
In career fields such as public health, experience goes a long way. But relevant experience can be tough to come by as a full-time student. Learn the keys to gaining marketable, professional experience in public health before graduation.