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.
Earn a Degree
The need for public health professionals at the national, state and local levels continues to rise. For example, U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics predicts a 21% increase in community health workers between 2012 and 2022. 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. This demand, however, requires a larger and more flexible supply of
higher educational opportunities in the field, both on campus and online. Access to quality degree programs in public health and related
majors remains a critical step toward healthier communities and a healthier country.
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 degree program takes place online, including written coursework such as exams and
exercises, as well as routine collaboration with professors and peers. In contrast, students must visit either a campus or another
medical center or laboratory with which the school has a partnership. (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
experience can take online MPH courses from home.
UNC's Gillings School, the No. 1-ranked public school of public health, offers an online Master of Public Health program, MPH@UNC. Earn your MPH in as few as 24 months. Part- and full-time options available. GRE, GMAT or MCAT required.
MPH@Simmons, the online Master of Public Health program from Simmons University, prepares students to become public health practitioners and address health inequity at a local, national, and global level. The program can be completed in 21 months. No GRE required to apply.
Capella University offers online BS, MHA, MPH, DHA and DrPH programs with specializations in health leadership, informatics, operations, information management and more. Scholarships are available. Request more information.
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 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.
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 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.
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. 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?
Students pursuing online public health degrees are eligible for the same local and national scholarships as students pursuing classroom-based degrees. In addition, most schools offer their online students scholarships based on merit or financial need.
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? The Explore section offers a personality quiz and links to top employers, scholarships and other resources to help you make the right decision for you.
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 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:
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.
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.
For more information about working in public health, please visit our in-depth guide to public health careers.
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.
The master's in public health (MPH) is the most popular advanced credential for professionals in the field. Learn the different online program options, 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 build when a full-time student. Learn the keys to gaining marketable, professional experience in public health before graduation.