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What You Can Do With a Public Health Degree | Education

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Students looking to prevent or mitigate another global pandemic or learn about the social factors that affect patient outcomes could benefit from a degree in public health.

A person entering the field of public health typically will have some involvement with government.

“It is usually going to be a government (entity) with a county, a city or perhaps with the state,” says David M. Claborn, director of the Master of Public Health Program at Missouri State University. “That’s where most of the authority with public health lies.”

Claborn, who has a doctorate in public health, says graduates with degrees in public health also find work with federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. military.

Jobs You Can Land With a Public Health Degree

Although there are baccalaureate programs in public health, professionals in the field often earn a public health graduate degree, notes Dr. Robert W. Amler, dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice. There are doctorate programs that normally have some specialization attached to the degree, he says.

Typical courses in public health academic programs revolve around nutrition, community health, health policy and management, epidemiology and infectious diseases, family nutrition, biostatistics, agroecology and molecular parasitology.

Here are some jobs graduates with a degree in a public health concentration or specialty may consider, according to experts in the field:

  • Epidemiologist.
  • Biostatistician.
  • Toxicologist.
  • Behavioral health scientist.
  • Environmental health scientist.
  • Health commissioner.
  • Health care administrator.
  • Public policy analyst.
  • Public health adviser.
  • Health director.
  • Global health expert.
  • Demographer.
  • Health educator.
  • Surgeon general.
  • Sanitarian.
  • Industrial hygienist.
  • Maternal and child health specialist.
  • Emergency preparedness professional.

Claborn has noticed more of his students in recent years focusing on environmental health, due partly to environmental and natural disasters and especially climate change.
“People see in the news stuff like barges filled with methanol on the (Ohio) River, wildfires on the West Coast and more,” he says, “and people, especially those entering the field, are very interested in that aspect of public health.”

“I think all physicians would agree that public health is an important part of their job, whether you work a specialty, in a hospital, or outpatient,” he says. “I went out of my way to get a public health degree while in medical school so that I can be more educated about the social determinants of health that affect the health of my patients, in order to take better care of them.”

No matter how good a health care worker’s diagnostic ability or bedside manner, it’s impossible to provide the best care for a patient without considering social determinants that could negatively affect the patient’s circumstances, like race, gender, sexuality and wealth, Hedgepeth says.

Shu Phua received a master’s in public health from the University of Virginia School of Medicine and is a health research analyst at Mathematica, a Washington D.C.-based social policy research organization. She works on several projects directly related to public health, including one on pandemic preparedness and another that is evaluating California’s Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, an equity-focused program established in 2021 to promote mental and emotional well-being among kids.

“A career in public health allows me to help others on a larger scale, to address the socioeconomic and structural determinants of health that cause health disparities, especially within underserved populations,” she says.

Importance of Public Health Work

“Public health involves much more than just infectious diseases,” Phua says. “Everything is public health. It is the clean water we have access to, the proximity to a good school, safe streets for children to walk on, access to healthy food options, the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of color, and so much more.”

Public health is ingrained in the fabric of society, Amler says. For centuries, the health of its population has always been a concern of a functional civilization, he says.

As populations continue to grow and live longer, the importance of public health work follows suit, experts say.

“The denser and larger our populations are, the more vulnerable we become to rampant infectious diseases,” Claborn says.

Every so often, he says, society is going to get hit with a major disruptor such as the COVID-19 pandemic and “the country needs competent people with a strong understanding of disease transmission and how to mitigate the dangers of it to keep people safe.”

Adrianna Jeffress, also a student at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, hopes to complete her master’s in public health program in 2024 and become an obstetrician and gynecologist. She says she likes public health because it requires public health professionals, as educators, to go beyond technical terms and medical jargon.

“This allows people to have a better understanding of health conditions, communicable diseases and resources in the area that can directly impact their health,” she says. “Getting a public health degree would aid me in providing better care for my future patients.”

State of Public Health Work After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic created many public health jobs for people interested in the field who might not have a public health degree, Amler says.

For example, vaccine centers in big cities needed hundreds of workers to help with registration, space organization, coordination and communication within and across agencies in order to efficiently administer the vaccine to millions of Americans.

Although public health work is crucial anywhere, Amler says the pandemic highlighted a critical need for workers in poorer countries.

The pandemic also was accompanied by a spike in interest in public health studies.

An August 2021 article in The Nation’s Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association, reported that although applications for public health programs already were rising when the pandemic began, they increased 23% in March 2020 over March 2019 – and were 40% higher in March 2021 than a year earlier, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health’s Schools of Public Health Application Service.

Claborn says he’s seen much higher interest in studying public health among international students than American students. He blames “a particularly nasty political situation” in the U.S. around pandemic response.

“Across the board,” he says, “I think people got kind of a bad taste in their mouth because of some bad communication and the politics involved.”

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