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Public health is an interdisciplinary field that includes workers with a variety of skills and educational backgrounds. The overriding goal of public health professionals is to protect the health of the population. Public health professionals are involved in collecting data about population trends, infectious diseases, morbidity and mortality within population groups, and trends in chronic diseases. For example, before the advent of antibiotics and effective vaccines, infectious diseases were the major cause of illness, disability, and death.More recently, the biggest threats to public health are the so-called lifestyle diseases, resulting from smoking and other substance use, environmental hazards, poor nutrition, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles.

To address all of these challenges, the field of public health includes opportunities not only for nurses and physicians, but also epidemiologists, environmental health experts, health educators, nutritionists, researchers and statisticians, among others. Public health includes the areas of:

  • School health
  • Occupational health
  • Maternal and child health
  • Gerontology
  • Policy development and political advocacy on health-related issues.

People drawn to public health careers typically enjoy working in interdisciplinary teams, in non-traditional settings such as the community as opposed to the hospital, and with clients from diverse backgrounds. Public health workers must also be flexible, since challenges in public health careers include working with limited resources, tight budgets, and changing funding.

The focus of the work day is often on prevention rather than treatment of disease. For example, a nurse may work in a clinic setting providing well-child care in the morning and spend the afternoon visiting women with high-risk pregnancies. Health departments typically offer clinics for delivery of contraception and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, as well as tuberculosis. Epidemiologists track down sources of food-borne infections such as salmonella and E. coli. Nutrition programs such as the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) program are often administered through local health departments. Health department workers also test for environmental toxins, such as lead poisoning and implement programs to eradicate the toxins.

Formal training required to work in public health

Training and education requirements vary with the role, but in general, public health jobs require a bachelor's degree in a professional discipline. Additionally, many jobs, particularly at the administrative level, require a master's degree in public health (MPH). Doctoral degrees from a school of public health are increasingly common as well.

MPH programs are typically interdisciplinary programs within public health schools, offering concentrations in ares like:

  • Epidemiology
  • Administration
  • Nursing
  • Nutrition
  • Education
  • Statistics

Certain jobs within the health department may use less educated workers; LPNs may assist in many of the clinics, and home health aides may work along side public health nurses. In working with population subgroups--for example migrant workers--aides may be trained specifically to be able to effectively interview and teach to promote better health practices. Technical workers in public health programs may work under the direction of occupational health and environmental health specialists.

The typical career path of someone working in public health

Due to the wide variety of public health careers, it's fair to say that there is not one standard career path. Basically, two sets of skills are needed. The first set is the unique knowledge and skills that come with preparation in the professions, whether that is medicine, nursing, dentistry, social work, nutrition, or another professional field.The second skill set includes the ability to apply that professional knowledge to the particular challenges of prevention and health promotion for the community, as opposed to diagnosis and treatment of the individual.

Public health work may take place in both the public and the private spheres and often requires sharing of information across arenas, as well as interdisciplinary cooperation, to be effective. It is certainly possible to begin work in public health as a first job out of college and to advance with experience and further education over time.

Job outlook and salary information for public health occupations

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job prospects for health educators are expected to rise at a faster than normal rate. This holds for other public health careers as well. Health professionals in general are expected to be in demand, particularly in rural areas and in meeting the needs of an aging population. Income for public health professionals in the public sector may be less in some cases than they might earn in private practice, but in general, public health jobs pay at rates comparable to or above salaries in hospitals or in educational jobs.

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