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What is public health and why is it important?

At a glance

  • Public health includes any organized effort to protect and promote the health of populations at a local, state or national level.
  • Public health works to ensure the equitable distribution of health promotion and disease prevention efforts across and within populations (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, identity, community).
  • Public health services include health communication campaigns, disease monitoring and investigation, mobilization of communities around health issues, development of health policy and plans, and enforcement of laws to create healthy environments.
  • At University of Phoenix, the Master of Public Health degree program can prepare students to assess and advocate for the health needs of communities.

Whether it’s clean water or access to healthcare, members of society frequently work together to promote group health. This collective goal to prevent illness and promote wellness for all is known as public health.

Here, we provide information about public health — the research, programs and careers that help protect health on a large scale.

What is public health?

Public health is any effort to protect the health of a community or country. This includes organized efforts to identify and address disease, promote healthy lifestyles, prevent injuries and illness, improve nutrition and emphasize meaningful hygiene. Public health efforts are enacted at local, state and national levels through organizations such as health departments, clinics, public health foundations and community centers.

Public health also plays an important role in implementing health policy, enforcing public health laws, ensuring equitable development of and access to public health efforts, and creating a public health workforce that continually assesses and improves upon public health programs.

Public health can promote simple wellness strategies, such as hydration and adequate sleep. More frequently, however, it represents a coordinated effort to protect health for an entire group of people. For example, an organization might distribute safe drinking water to a community recovering from a natural disaster.

Healthcare experts play a particularly important role in helping to further public health efforts in a variety of ways, including research, education, medicine and vaccine distribution. Students also play an important role in public health, often contributing to research efforts while completing healthcare degree programs.

Healthcare students may also choose to pursue healthcare administration degrees, given the subsequent career possibilities in fields like health administration, nursing home management, healthcare administration and health information systems. No matter the healthcare field, though, it’s important that students understand the role public health plays in society.

Healthcare professionals might also enhance their education through a master’s degree in nursing (MSN). After polishing skills in informatics and gaining a practical nursing education, licensed registered nurses can pursue an MSN or MSN bridge program to prepare for new opportunities in their career, such as leveraging nurse roles across a variety of healthcare operations — many focused on protecting public health.

The importance of public health

Public health professionals fulfill many roles. Among other important duties, healthcare experts work to protect communal health. This means keeping a society healthy and informed regarding any physical or mental health threats.

Sometimes, public health officials can help prevent disease outbreaks. In other cases, public health efforts can assist rural communities, implement education programs and complete preparatory research projects. No matter the type of outreach, it contributes directly to the greater good of societies around the world.

Officials in the public health sector, in other words, provide advice and direction that drive health forward, reducing pressure on medical facilities and the cost of medical care to society. Public health officials also ensure we are equipped to react appropriately in the face of a health crisis.

Public health research

One of the main responsibilities of public health is to keep society apprised of the latest health developments. To inform both the public and healthcare decision-making, healthcare professionals such as healthcare researchers routinely undertake research projects.

This research takes many forms, but the underlying goal remains the same: to understand health challenges, predict future developments and prevent health crises.

Research is one of the main pillars of public health. Unlike many other health sectors, it is largely preventive — professionals use ongoing research to identify and prevent health challenges before they escalate.

Without research, professionals and officials lose valuable time in responding to issues. In addition, a lack of research can mean that officials don’t know which biological, environmental or social influences to target.

Working in healthcare requires a strong ethical foundation. Learn about the four principles of ethics in nursing.

Public health communication

Public health professionals frequently need to communicate with society. When it’s time for health experts to share research findings with people, they use a variety of communication channels.

At times, health experts might communicate with the public through the following channels:

  • Journals and other digital or print publications featuring public health research
  • Community events
  • Announcements or bulletins distributed in public locations
  • Phone or email messaging
  • Social media
  • Local news channels
  • Digital advertisements

Health professionals have a few priorities when communicating with society. First, they must ensure that they deliver accurate information to the general public. This information must also be timely; if the information takes too long to reach people, it might already be outdated. Lastly, it needs to provide instructions about how to act on the message. Effective health communication draws on decades of health communication theory.

Public health programs and organizations

Public health organizations fulfill a wide variety of responsibilities. These organizations exist to protect society from disease, illness and other health-related challenges, and many make sizable research contributions in individual fields.

The following organizations are dedicated to public health:

These and other public health organizations work to improve the lives of people around the world. They frequently partner with public health professionals to relay research findings, messages and health updates to the public.

Pursuing a career in public health

When you complete a degree in healthcare, you take the first step toward impacting the health of your community. Students interested in public health can obtain a degree in several different healthcare fields, and embark upon careers such as:

  • Health educator
  • Health information management director
  • Health manager
  • Nursing director

A Master of Public Health is the degree program that most aligns with these job outcomes. However, an undergraduate degree is needed to pursue a master’s. Many students often begin their journey to an MPH with a healthcare-related degree, like a bachelor’s degree in health administration. In the program, you’ll learn many of the basics that inform a professional health career, including skills in health administration and quality management.

For those who want to remain in the healthcare field but not necessarily pursue a career in public health, an option is a master’s degree in health administration. In addition to polished healthcare skills, you’ll learn strategies that can help you assume a leadership role in a public health setting.

If you’re interested in a career in public health, University of Phoenix can help you get started. The University offers bachelor’s degrees in health administration and health management (learn the difference between the two on our blog) as well as a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Community Health Leadership. Visit phoenix.edu to learn more!