Health policy is a fundamentally important part of public health. As someone who works in health policy it’s up to you to come up with the right policies and implementation strategies to improve problems with individual and public health.
The World Health Organization describes health policy as the actions, plans, and decisions that are taken to achieve specific health goals. This can include:
- Defining a vision for the future in the form of a specific health policy
- Outlining health priorities
- Establishing targets and reference points for measuring progress towards health goals
- Defining the roles of specific groups involved in the health policy
- Educating and informing people while building a consensus
Good public health policy makers lead the important actors in health –the public and private sector, the research community, and existing governmental programs– to develop, analyze, and coordinate health policies that maximize the public benefit. At least, that’s what the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Office of Health Policy does.
The DHHS’ Office of Health Policy provides a basic idea about topic areas where health policy is particularly focused today:
- Health promotion and disease prevention
- Patient safety and consumer protection
- Substance abuse and mental health
- Healthcare policy making
- Government health insurance programs and healthcare access
That’s at the national scale. Each player in the healthcare and public health sectors –at the national, regional, and local level– develops their own health policies that work best for them. These players can include:
- Local and state public health departments
- Health policy lobbyist firms
- Hospitals and clinics
- Pharmaceutical companies
- University-affiliated research centers and institutes
- Private research and consulting companies
- Local and regional government health programs and initiatives
A career in health policy means you’ll be working at one of these types of places. You’ll be at the intersection of health research, health data, and the existing health infrastructure. At a more senior level as a health policy director or manager you’d be tasked to come up with and implement plans to improve the quality of health where you are. At a more junior level you’d be working on a particular component of this broader equation.
A wide skills set is required if you want to pursue a career in the health policy field, and knowing what you need depends on which angle you’re approaching health policy from. For example:
- Research institute – You’ll need to know how to gather good data and use it to forecast changes in health
- Consulting or lobbyist firm – You’ll need to have excellent communication, persuasion, and presentation skills
- Public health department – You’ll need to be an excellent networker who can consolidate information and turn it into an implementable policy
- Hospital – You’ll be on the front lines of gathering data and evaluating the effectiveness of policies
There’s a hodgepodge of different degrees you can earn that will give you specific skills in select areas above. However a degree in public health will cover the vast majority of all the important areas in health policy. It’s a versatile credential that fits hand-in-glove with most-if-not-all aspects of health policy at most sectors in this field. Some schools even offer degrees in health policy.
Getting the right education is the first step towards a career in health policy.
Step 1 – Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Policy, Public Health, or Other Relevant field
It goes without saying that a bachelor’s degree in health policy is ideal if you’re thinking about going into this field. There aren’t many schools that offer these, and where they are available you’ll see them listed as:
- Bachelor’s in Health Policy
- Bachelor’s in Health Policy and Administration
- Bachelor’s in Public Policy with a Health Policy focus
- Bachelor’s in Health Administration and Policy
A bachelor’s degree in public health (BPH) is also a great way to prepare for a career in health policy. Some BPH programs even include a specific health policy track.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree then you’re even closer to earning a relevant graduate degree and entering the health policy field as a heavyweight. There are many relevant undergraduate fields that apply specifically to different parts of the health policy field, including:
- Statistics and data science
- Biology, chemistry, or biochemistry
- Nursing or medicine
- English, speech and communication
- Political science
- Healthcare administration
Step 2 – Earn a Graduate Degree in Health Policy, Public Health, or Other Relevant Field
While there are plenty of careers in health policy that are accessible with a bachelor’s degree, you’ll find that having a relevant master’s degree allows you to really explore this field unhindered and reach your full potential.
There are a few schools nationally that offer a master’s degree in health policy or health policy management. But the most widely available degree program that’s just as applicable is a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration or specialization track in health policy or health policy management.
The kinds topics you’ll encounter in this type of program include:
- Health economics at the micro and macro levels
- Health systems organization
- Politics of health policy
- Health policy analysis
- Public health management
- Urban healthcare systems
- Software and data analytics
Another important benefit of a graduate program in the opportunity for an internship. This will get you real-world experience and give you a chance to network where you can develop professional contacts and references.
Many master’s-level programs in this field simply require a bachelor’s degree in any field as the minimum education requirement for admission.
If you’re interested in health policy as it relates to tenure-track teaching positions, publishing, or senior-level management and director positions then you may want to consider a doctoral program in public health (DPH) with a health policy focus. A handful of schools nationwide also offer a doctoral degree in health policy or health policy management.
Step 3 – Apply for Jobs in the Health Policy Field
You can get your career going with jobs in the health policy field whether you’re at the undergraduate or graduate level of education. Employers set their own hiring requirements. There aren’t mandatory national licensing or certification requirements.
These are some examples of employers, job titles, and degree requirements sourced from actual job ads from across the nation:
Health Policy Specialist with the SIU School of Medicine in Illinois – Bachelor’s degree in a relevant area required, master’s degree preferred
Associate at the National Academy for State Health Policy in Washington DC – Bachelor’s degree in health policy, public health, law, public policy, or a related field
Policy Analyst with the Johnson Center at Troy University in Alabama – Graduate degree in health policy, public administration, economics, political science, education policy, or three years of relevant work experience
Health Program Analyst with the Mitre Corporation in Virginia – Master’s in healthcare policy, public health, medicine, business, public policy, economics, healthcare, or a related field with 1-3 years of experience