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"Health care matters to all of us some of the time, public health matters to all of us all of the time" --C. Everett Koop (former Surgeon General of the United States)
Careers in Public Health--An Introduction
Public Health is a varied, challenging and ever changing field of study . Public health professionals work in every aspect of the health care system, including the government, hospitals, health systems, universities, and private companies.
Many jobs within public health require an advanced degree, although there are some entry-level positions available to those with a Bachelor degree. However, the Masters of Public Health (MPH) is often a requirement for supervisory and leadership positions in public health. The MPH is generally considered a terminal degree (highest, appropriate degree in the field), although some do choose to study public health in combination with a medical degree.
What is public health?
- Public health refers to the system that helps assure conditions in society in which people can be healthy.
- Public health is the art and science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention.
- Public health helps improve the health and well being of people in local communities, across the nation and throughout the world.
- Public health helps people who are less fortunate to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
- Public health differs from clinical medicine in several significant ways. Public health views the community as their “patient” as opposed to looking at an individual as the patient. Public health focuses on health, not disease. Public health's emphasis is on prevention and health promotion, rather than diagnosis and treatment.
It may be easier to understand what public health is when we examine how it impacts our daily lives. All we have to do is consider the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat to recognize some of the great strides the field of public health has made. We can also see evidence of the successes of public health efforts from the pasteurized milk we drink, to the seat belts that we buckle to the smoke-free restaurants where we eat. Other less obvious examples of the work of public health professionals include ensuring a safe blood supply, regulating pharmaceuticals, giving immunizations to underinsured children and protecting open space.
The irony is that the more effective public health efforts are in keeping the population free of diseases and injuries, the less we notice them. Much of the effort of public health workers is invisible to the average person in part because it takes a proactive, prevention approach.
The structure and mission of public health
More than 400,000 people work in public health in the United States. About 130,000 of those work for the federal government in various agencies, including Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The other 270,000 public health professionals might work for a state or local public health agency, a hospital, a group practice, a community health center, a community-based nonprofit organization, a foundation or in academia.
According to the Institute of Medicine , the mission of public health is to “fulfill society's interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy”. Public health carries out its mission through organized, interdisciplinary efforts that address the physical, mental and environmental health concerns of communities and populations at risk for disease and injury. Its mission is achieved through the application of health promotion and disease prevention technologies and interventions designed to improve and enhance quality of life.
What do public health professionals do?
The following have been identified by leaders in the field as the ten essential public health services in which public health professionals are typically involved in:
- Monitor and identify community health problems
- Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in a community
- Educate and empower people about health issues
- Mobilize community partnerships to identify and solve health problems
- Develop and implement policies
- Manage programs that support community health efforts
- Enforce law and regulations that protect health and ensure safety
- Link people to needed health services
- Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility and quality of population-based health services
- Research innovative solutions to health problems
Career Options--Public Health
Public health is a multidisciplinary field, including professions such as doctors, nurses, other health professionals, counselors, case workers, health educators, administrators, biostatisticians, epidemiologists, laboratory technicians, environmental scientists, lobbyists, bioterrorism experts, and health communication specialists. Depending on your educational focus, a degree in public health can take you many places.
Some public health graduates use their skills in an administrative/management position in health related institutions and organizations, such as pharmaceutical companies, hospital supply firms, government agencies, or Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). Other M.P.H. professionals work in community medicine, in positions such as city health planner, medical center infection control practitioner, county epidemiologist, and director of public health nursing services.
Many graduates also choose to work as public health educators, planning, organizing, and directing health education programs to special groups or the community. Health educators work in a variety of environments, such as consumer advocacy organizations, state legislative committees, and nonprofit organizations. Some health educators work in hospitals.
Public health professionals also work in basic and applied research. Their work addresses a range of areas. Some examples include the toxicological and chemical effects of toxic wastes, psychosocial impact of disease and injury, cancer epidemiology, the human/animal interface, design and evaluation of clinical trials for drug therapies, behavior changes to prevent disease, and alternative delivery systems of care, to name a few.
Here are some examples of public health jobs:
Epidemiologist – studies the distribution and determinants of disease or disability in specific segments of the population
Occupational safety and health worker – this area of public health works to identify, prevent and control the health and safety hazards related to the work environment
Health Educator – designs and implements programs that affect health including helping people develop healthier lifestyles and self-care practices
Health Services Administrator – plans, administers and oversees programs in the public or private sector, policy development, resource management, finance and marketing
Public Health Program Management – manages programs in social work, nursing, environmental health, aging, maternal and child health
Job Opportunities--Public Health
The following are some websites that can help you get started in your search for a job in the field of public health. In addition to searching on the web, it is always good to meet with a Counselor from the Amherst College Career Center to help tailor your search to your particular interests.
American Public Health Association
Center for Disease Control
Department of Health and Human Services listing of jobs
General job site specifically geared towards public health
Emory's School of Public Health organizes these internship and job opportunities; can be searched by city, state, job title, or hiring organization
The National Institute of Health's job postings
Internships and Fellowships--Public Health
As with most fields, an excellent way to get experience in the field of public health is by doing an internship. One of the best resources you have available to you in your public health internship search is access to the Experience database through the Amherst College Career Center home page. If you'd like more guidance on how to best navigate your Experience search, come in to see a Peer Career Advisor (PCA) or make an appointment with a Career Counselor.
American Public Health Association's listing of internships
United States Department of Health and Human Services' information regarding student employment and internships
Association of Schools of Public Health's listing of internship and fellowship programs
Center for Disease Control's training programs
A paid summer internship program in biomedical research with the National Institute of Health
Junior or senior undergraduates of African American, Hispanic or Native American descent are eligible to apply for this Center for Disease Control's Public Health Fellowship Program, an 8-week program that allows students to learn about public health practices and attend seminars on pressing public health issues
Emerging Leaders Program allows you to explore careers with the Department of Health and Human Services, while giving you skills and experience needed for a career with the federal government. This program provides training, mentoring, and career advice and support.
What is Public Health? defines the field, the impact of public health and career opportunities
The World Health Organization (WHO) is the United Nations specialized agency for health. This site will provide information on all sorts of health topics, including current disease outbreaks
American Public Health Association's website you'll find a wealth of information about public health as well as links to other related resources
The Society for Public Health Education is a professional organization for health educators
Spotlight on Careers: resources and links about public health
The federal government's brochure on public health jobs with the government.
American Journal of Public Health
The official journal of the American Public Health Association - publishes the highest quality articles in specialized areas of research, policy analysis and program evaluation.
The Nation's Health
This public health newspaper has the highest circulation and is the most widely read news tabloid in the public health community. When you receive your 24-plus page issue (11 issues per year), you will receive informative articles addressing every facet of public health, including government-related proposals and legislation, findings of recent studies, listings of professional meetings, letters to the editor, state health reports and more.
Health Education and Behavior
This is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes six issues per year containing empirical, theoretical, and practical articles exploring health-related behavioral and social change. The journal is for researchers and practitioners interested in a wide range of disease prevention and health promotion topics.