What Can You Do With a Public Health Degree?
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.
Suppose you're interested in getting to the root of health issues that impact large populations of people, creating ways to improve the health of those populations and encouraging healthy behaviors. In that case, a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Public Health might be for you.
What is Public Health?
To say the field of public health is broad would be a significant understatement. Armed with a public health degree, you could work on projects ranging from designing programs to encouraging healthy behaviors such as getting enough exercise and following a healthy diet. Other public health projects may include writing health policy for a government agency and even researching ways to fight disease outbreaks.
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 the environment, genetics, culture and many more – might affect those groups' overall health. Health education is important because it can focus on significant issues like encouraging healthy behaviors to reduce the incidence of diseases and other health problems and improve official and government response and preparedness to events like disease outbreaks or natural disasters to head off health impacts.
One thing that public health workers have in common is that they look at the health of groups of people rather than focusing on one individual at a time, according to Dr. Denise Bisaillon, founder of the university's public health program and retired executive director of health professions at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
"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 also 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."
Careers in Public Health
While public health encompasses a wide range of fields, here are five areas that you may expect to encounter while pursuing your degree:
- Biostatistics: A biostatistician is a statistician that works in healthcare, and they often create studies. These studies decide what data to collect, how much data will be collected and then analyze that data, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For example, testing juvenile lead levels in a specific community could be a job for a biostatistician. Biostatisticians focus on data sets, numbers and analyzing and manipulating data to draw conclusions and recommendations about disease and health. Bisaillon said that many biostatisticians work as consultants and are hired to be part of research teams on several projects simultaneously. BLS reports all statistician jobs are expected to grow by 35% through 2030 and the median annual wage for healthcare statisticians was $79,440 in 2020.
- Environmental Health: A public health degree can also lead you to a career in environmental health, where you may examine the world around you and how the water, land and air affect health. "There's a whole area of study of how this impacts health," Bisaillon said. Even within this subset of public health, you can explore a wide range of research and outcomes. You could find yourself studying various ways climate change influences health, such as whether warmer temperatures affect the spread of disease carriers like mosquitoes infecting people with West Nile Virus or the Zika virus. You may also investigate ways to better prepare for natural disasters so that disease and illness aren'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. According to BLS, environmental scientist jobs – including environmental health – are expected to grow by 8% through 2030, and these jobs had a median pay of $73,230 in 2020.
- Epidemiology: As an epidemiologist, you may 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. Those factors include economic opportunities, culture, quality of education and social support – what Bisaillon called "social determinates of health." You could also 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. Many epidemiologists work for local or state government agencies, according to BLS, while others work at hospitals, scientific and development research companies or colleges and universities. In 2020, the epidemiologist's median pay was $74,560, and BLS expects jobs to grow by 30% through 2030.
- Health Policy and Administration: Health policy and administration experts specialize in formulating and writing policies that impact the healthcare industry, other health-related industries and the public. They can work to promote or lobby health initiatives among various stakeholders, such as legislators. Degree holders work in multiple settings, including health policy research think tanks or healthcare administration at community health organizations. They may also function as program directors of local or state public health departments to run wellness, child health or other critical areas. Health policy and administration experts may 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. According to BLS, healthcare administrators can be referred to as health service managers, and part of their responsibilities may include health policy. Health service manager roles are expected to grow 32% by 2030, and they earned a median salary of $104,280 in 2020.
- Social and Behavioral Sciences: Social and behavioral scientists in public health are interested in human behavior, especially influencing 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 influence our behavior in specific ways, such as how the sponsorship of a soda company in a public high school affected students' consumption of soda. According to BLS, sociologists earned a median salary of $86,110 in 2020.
While these are just 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.
The Future of Public Health
Undergraduate degrees are emerging in public health, providing students with an opportunity to gain foundational skills and knowledge in the field before considering a graduate degree. That's partly a reflection of public health's emergence in the healthcare industry and the growing appreciation among healthcare professionals for its vital role in healthy lives. Bisaillon said she remembers resistance from some medical community members when public health advocates began talking to them about taking a broader 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 happening in each other's communities and other parts of the world. Skills and knowledge are critical to combat some of these diseases or predict trends. That's why it's powerful, and every one of our health professions could benefit from public health."
Dr. Sarah McCool, an adjunct instructor of nursing and health professions at SNHU, 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," she said. "It's important to understand the impact of globalization and how that affects public health. You can spread disease in the time it takes to cross the world on a trans-Atlantic flight."
Why a BS in Public Health?
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.
For many years, there was only Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees in the field available for students who had earned a bachelor's degree in another field. Bisaillon said the emergence of public health undergraduate programs is a recognition that the field 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 graduates must be as prepared to work effectively when they graduate as possible for a field as important as public health. There are many careers you can pursue with your MPH. Also, 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. This option wasn't available when McCool was an undergraduate student. She recalls instances in her 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 good field for those interested in healthcare who want to help people, as well as those who want to focus on finding broad solutions rather than responding to the acute health problems of individual patients. "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 respond to specific symptoms and illnesses and treat 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 is vital to you, a public health degree is a possibility to consider.
McCool said the single most significant strength of the program she could point to is 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. For example, one project McCool had worked on closely mirrors one she confronted when she was hired 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 several factors related to the disease and the elements among the workers that contributed to them contracting it. The team was then able to make recommendations to the company about creating local partnerships and begin working on methods to improve the employees' health.
While the project SNHU students may 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 an illness among a group of patients and looking at the health impacts and other factors – economic, cultural, environmental and many more – that contribute to it.
"It's really important for students to gain the skills that they're going to need in public health," McCool said. "That's really important to be able to step into the field ready and prepared for what you're actually going to do."
Bisaillon said the program also offers a great deal of academic support, 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.
Discover more about SNHU's BS in Public Health: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.
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