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Treating Causes Instead of Symptoms with a Public Health Degree

Health professionals discussing ways to improve health issues and encourage healthy behaviors for a larger population.

There's much more to healthcare than giving a patient their annual physical in an office, treating a broken ankle in an emergency room or removing an appendix in an operating room.

If you're interested in getting to the root of health issues that impact large populations of people, creating ways to improve those populations' health and encourage healthy behaviors, an undergraduate public health degree or a master's in public health from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) might be for you.

What Is Public Health Anyway?

To say the field of public health is broad would be a significant understatement. Armed with a public health degree from SNHU you could find yourself working on projects ranging from designing programs to encouraging healthy behaviors like getting enough exercise and following a healthy dieting to writing health policy for a government agency or even researching ways to fight disease outbreaks in South America.

In a general sense, public health is about examining the health of large groups of people rather than individual patients and what factors - including everything from environment, genetics, culture and many more - might affect those groups' overall health. It also focuses on ways to encourage healthy behaviors to reduce the incidence of diseases and other health problems and to improve official and government response and preparedness to things like disease outbreaks or natural disasters to head-off health impacts.

One thing that public health workers have in common, according to Dr. Denise Bisaillon, associate dean of public health at SNHU, is that they look at the health of groups of people rather than focusing on one individual at a time.

"Public health looks at populations. It doesn't look at individuals," Bisaillon said. "It's not a clinical program. It's not a clinical field. Public health looks at whole populations and what diseases are out there and where they came from. They look at all the ways that disease and conditions take place and how to prevent them."

Where you'll work is equally varied. While many public health workers are employed by local, county or federal government agencies, many more work for hospitals or other medical facilities, nonprofit organizations or managed care groups.

"There are a lot of opportunities," Bisaillon said. "It's a field that is growing due to the need to improve health before it requires medical treatment."

A Plethora of Options

SNHU's public health degree programs, both at the bachelor's and master's level, divide the field into five broad areas.

  • Epidemiology - As an epidemiologist you will focus on data and determine what groups in your community are at risk for certain diseases or health conditions based on the unique risk factors and behaviors they have in common. Some of those factors include economic opportunities, culture, quality of education and social support - what Bisaillon called "social determinates of health." At SNHU you will learn how an epidemiologist measures the prevalence of disease in a community and ways to study disease in a community using statistical interaction and analysis. Most epidemiologists work for local or state government agencies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while others work at hospitals, scientific and development research companies or colleges and universities.
  • Biostatistics - Quite simply a biostatistician uses statistical formulas and protocols to examine health data. A biostatistician will often design studies, including what data to collect, how and how much data will be collected and then analyze the data on juvenile lead levels in a certain community, for instance. While epidemiologists also take a wide view of certain populations of people, biostatisticians focus even more on data sets, numbers and analyzing and manipulating data to draw conclusions and recommendations about disease and health. Many biostatisticians work as consultants and are hired to be part of research teams on a number of projects at the same time, Bisaillon said.
  • Environmental Health - A public health degree can also lead you to a career in environmental health where you will examine the world around us and how the water, land and air of our environment affects health. "There's a whole area of study of how this impacts health," Bisaillon said. Even within this subset of public health there is a wide range of research and outcomes you can explore. You could find yourself studying various ways climate change influences health, such as whether warmer temperatures affects the spread of disease carriers like mosquitoes infecting people with West Nile Virus or the Zika virus. Bisaillon said this area in particular is important going forward. "It's going to be the biggest issue that's addressing our planet in the next decade and beyond because it's already happening," she said. You may also investigate ways to better prepare for natural disasters so that disease and illness isn't rampant because of contaminated water sources following a hurricane or flood. "Environmental specialists try to avert more damage from occurring, but also how can we prevent environmental insults in the first place," Bisaillon said.
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences - Social and behavioral scientists in public health are interested in human behavior and especially the foundation of how to influence that behavior to encourage healthier habits, thereby increasing public health. Many workers in this area design public health programs and receive grant money to administer efforts to encourage quitting smoking, for instance, or increasing your level of exercise. Others run studies to determine what aspects of our lives are influencing our behavior in certain ways, such as how the sponsorship of a soda company in a public high school affected students' consumption of soda.
  • Health Policy and Administration - Finally, health policy and administration experts specialize in formulating and writing policies that impact the healthcare industry, other health-related industries and the public at large. They also can work to promote or lobby health initiatives among a variety of stakeholders such as legislators. Degree holders work in myriad settings, including health policy research think tanks or in healthcare administration at community health organizations. They may also work as program directors of local or state departments of public health to run wellness, child health or other critical areas. Health policy and administration experts can also work in industry groups such as the American Lung Association or American Heart Association as lobbyists or health policy analysts that help draft proposed legislation and drive an organization's objectives. Of course, while these are the five pillars of the public health field, there may be many more options for you once you complete your public health degree. "Every one of those areas have a wealth of jobs attached to them, and some jobs can be combined," Bisaillon said.

Public Health in the Future

Undergraduate public health degree programs are relatively new across the country and Southern New Hampshire University was one of the first to offer a degree in this area before the master's degree level, Bisaillon said. That's partly a reflection of public health's emergence in the healthcare industry and the growing appreciation among healthcare professionals of its vital role in healthy lives. Bisaillon said she remembers resistance from some members of the medical community when public health advocates began talking to them about taking a wider view of health. Some physicians worried that focus on individual patients might be overlooked. In many ways that view has receded in recent years.

"I think in the last couple of decades people have realized how powerful public health is and how necessary it is in terms of overall healthcare," Bisaillon said. "It's the wave of the future. We are becoming more and more global, more interconnected. Boundaries are disappearing so we all need to be aware of what's going on in each other's communities and other parts of the world. Skills and knowledge are critical to combat some of these diseases or to predict trends. That's why it's powerful and every one of our health professions could benefit from public health."

Dr. Sarah McCool, an SNHU adjunct professor who teaches Global Health and Diversity, agreed. "I would say public health is the recognition that there are certain health issues that every population suffers from, not just nationally but internationally," said. "It's important to understand the impact of globalization and how that affects public health. You can spread a disease in the time it takes to cross the world on a trans-Atlantic flight."

Why Public Health? Why SNHU?

Southern New Hampshire University is a great place to get started on a public health degree degree. If you already have a great deal to do with a full-time job, family and all the other aspects that make a busy life, SNHU's online program may be the best way to continue your education in the field that interests you. You also won't be alone in joining the public health degree program later in life. Many of the program's students already have experience working or volunteering in the public health field and enrolled online after having their interest piqued. While medical or field experience is not required to begin work toward a public health degree, many who enter a public health field have worked in the healthcare industry previously as physicians, nurses, dental hygienists or pharmacists. Some turn to a public health role after seeing many of the same health problems day after day and year after year. For some, the answer is to begin working on the root of problems like obesity or alcohol abuse through a population-health perspective. "They understand the value of public health," Bisaillon said.

Another aspect of the changing view of the public health field is the fact that SNHU has an undergraduate level public health degree. For many years there were only master's-level programs in the field available for students who had earned a bachelor's degree in another field. SNHU is one of the few schools in the country to offer a bachelor's degree in public health, Bisaillon said, and that's partly a recognition that the field in general is a vital one and that more public health workers and educators are needed not just in the United States but around the world.

McCool said that's a positive development because for a field as important as public health, it's vital that graduates are as prepared to work effectively when they graduate as possible. Master's program students who have an undergraduate degree in public health already under their belt will continue to build upon their knowledge and enhance their skills within the field - an option that wasn't available when she was an undergraduate student. McCool recalls instances in her own career when she would have benefited from an undergraduate degree in public health. "I think that's a huge asset," she said.

Public health is a particularly good field for people who are interested in healthcare and want to help people, but also appreciate being aggressive about finding solutions rather than responding to individual patients facing acute health problems. "While there has been a gradual shift ... to a wellness model, the medical establishment mainly operates on a sickness model," McCool said. She said a sickness model generally means physicians are responding to specific symptoms and illnesses and treating them. "We want to get involved and prevent something from happening rather than fix something once it has happened," she said. "So it's much more proactive than reactive."

If addressing the root instead of the branches of some of the keynote health challenges of our day, a public health degree at SNHU is a possibility to consider - and reasons why begin with the people who will teach you. "We have really wonderful faculty," Bisaillon said. "The instructors really enjoy teaching and they are passionate about public health."

McCool said the single biggest strength of the program she could point to is the fact that so much of the course content is directly tied to real-world tasks and problems students can expect to face once they graduate and enter the public health field. One project McCool is working on now closely mirrors one she confronted when she was hired recently by a Fortune 500 company interested in forming partnerships in south Asia to help address tuberculosis among factory workers there. She worked on a small team that examined a number of factors related to the disease as well as the elements among the workers that contributed to them contracting it. The team was then able to make recommendations to the company about ways to create local partnerships and begin working on methods to improve the employee's' health. While the project SNHU students will do won't exactly mirror that project, McCool said they'll be asked to do many of the same things, such as examining the root of the an illness among a group of patients and look at the health impacts and other factors - economic, cultural, environmental and many more - that contribute to it.

"The thing that I think really sets SNHU apart from other programs ... Southern New Hampshire really has a strong focus on assignments, assessments, outcomes that really closely mirror what students are going to see in the field," McCool said. "It's really important for students to gain the skills that they're going to need in public health. That's really important to be able to step into the field ready and prepared for what you're actually going to do."

The program also offers a great deal of academic support, Bisaillon said, including a writing center and video tutorials for sometimes challenging courses like statistics. That's in addition to the support all SNHU online students receive from faculty, academic advisors and more. You can take the first step toward your bachelor's or master's of public health degree online today at SNHU.edu.

Southern New Hampshire University's online public health degree programs at both the bachelor's and master's levels offer students an affordable and extremely flexible way to help advance their careers in public health or join a growing field that gets to the root of health problems impacting millions of people every day. Contact the admission team to learn more about the possibilities available for you.

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