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Exploring public health as a career path

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Mark Jóhannsson, DHSc, MPH, Dean, College of Health Professions

Reviewed by Mark Jóhannsson, DHSc, MPH, Dean, College of Health Professions.

This article was updated on 04/10/2024.

A public health career can be a way to make a difference in your community, whether that’s through disease prevention, food and water safety, or better access to healthcare. Read on to explore careers that can help protect health on a large scale.

Earn your Master of Public Health degree in as little as 19 months at University of Phoenix!

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 such organizations 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 the health of 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 an important role in helping to further public health efforts in a variety of ways, including research, education, medicine and vaccines. Students also play an important role in public health, often contributing to research efforts while completing healthcare degree programs.

Healthcare students may additionally pursue healthcare administration degrees, given the subsequent career possibilities, like working as a practice or program manager in health administration, nursing home management, healthcare administration and health information systems.

No matter the healthcare field, it’s important that students understand the role public health plays in society.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between public health and the rest of healthcare,” explains Heather Steiness, associate dean of the College of Health Professions at University of Phoenix. By studying larger patterns in the general population, public health professionals can identify trends, focus on prevention and determine treatment when necessary. “Public health impacts everything,” Steiness says.

Licensed registered nurses (RNs) might also pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or, if they hold a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, an MSN bridge program to prepare for new opportunities in their career. These might include nurse roles across a variety of healthcare operations, including 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 physical or mental health threats.

Community health is a massive ecosystem that involves many disciplines. Each plays a key role. Nurses and doctors may be the most visible frontline professionals, but plenty of people work behind the scenes to leverage data and information to influence public policy.

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health experts leveraged wastewater data and hospitalization totals to make policy decisions regarding masks, business operations and school closures.

Sometimes, public health officials can help prevent disease outbreaks. Other times, public health efforts focus on assisting rural communities, implementing education programs and completing preparatory research projects.

Public health also addresses health disparities caused by socioeconomic factors, according to Steiness. Workers in this field can help identify and address concerns specific populations face. Examples include programs to address the lack of healthy food options, which occurs more frequently in lower-income neighborhoods; creating cooling stations in urban “heat islands” for those without air conditioning; or providing mobile breast screening or vaccination options in rural areas with less access to healthcare.

No matter the type of outreach, it should contribute directly to the greater good of society.

Another way to look at it? Officials in the public health sector provide advice and direction intended to 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 professionals accomplish this in a variety of ways. Consider the following components:

Public health research 

Public health officials wear many hats, but one core function is to monitor the health of the population, Steiness notes.                              

Recent outbreaks of measles in the U.S. are one example. The disease had not been prevalent in the population for many years, and when it cropped up again, public health experts needed to identify it quickly to prevent further spread.

The next step in disease prevention is to make health research accessible and available to the general population, which is something public health officials are responsible for.

From there, research in public health may focus on creating evidence-based solutions to concerning trends. In the case of a measles outbreak, developing educational programs and setting up vaccine clinics are some ways public health research might be put into action.

Throughout, Steiness says, it’s critical to ensure research includes all population groups so that the application of solutions or preventive measures is equally inclusive and effective.

Efficacy, in fact, informs the third branch of public health research. Once professionals identify a disease or trend and develop a program or outreach to address it, they must observe how well the solution addressed the problem. 

Public health communication 

Another major component of public health work is strong communication. It’s not enough to research issues. Officials must also share those findings with the public, and that can occur in many different channels, ranging from community events and announcements to digital advertising and local news.

Health professionals must ensure the information is timely and accurate; if it takes too long to get out, it might be outdated and the opportunity to prevent harm may be lost. Information also needs to be proactive and give instructions on how to act.

Public health programs and organizations 

Public health organizations fulfill a wide variety of responsibilities. They 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 at the national, state and local levels work to improve the lives of people around the world. They employ public health professionals to relay research findings, messages and health updates to the public.

Public health degrees 

Depending on one’s experience and educational background, some public health careers can be more attainable than others. Community health workers, for example, may only need a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree in health or health-related fields may help or be required.

Other examples of entry-level roles are public health educators and community program coordinators.

If you’re pursuing leadership roles in public health, a Master of Public Health (MPH) can help teach skills and behaviors necessary to influence public health in a positive way. University of Phoenix’s program focuses on community health leadership and can be completed within 19 months. It’s a flexible education that enables individuals to take one course at a time, which is perfect for those who want to pursue their education while working or meeting other commitments. 

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What is a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree?

Public health careers 

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

  • Public health administrator: Public health administrators assess community health issues and educate the public on common health issues, including mental health. They can work in both the public and private sectors, overseeing non-clinical business operations. Other duties include maintaining healthcare standards for their communities and developing outreach programs. In many cases, they also write grant proposals or organize fundraising.
  • Public health program manager: These health program managers coordinate multiple projects within a public health context. In addition to maintaining budgets and delegating tasks, they oversee recruiting and hiring and cross-department communication. They also enforce project deadlines and can have a hand in grant applications, compliance and budgets.
  • Health education specialist: Health education specialists teach people in their communities about ways to be healthier. They also develop strategies for individuals and communities to improve their well-being. They can work in settings such as hospitals, clinics, nonprofit groups and public health departments.
  • Public health officer: Public health officers develop public health policies, manage programs, oversee disease control and prevention, and engage with their communities. In addition, they are responsible for some degree of health education for the general public. Responsibilities can vary based on specialization and a community’s specific needs.
  • Community health program coordinator: Health program coordinators manage and oversee health programs within the public health sector. They plan, implement and evaluate programs. In addition, they often manage people, budgets and community outreach.

Public health career growth and trajectory 

The job outlook for community and public health professionals, including education specialists, is positive, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which projects 7% growth for health education specialists between 2022 and 2032. Community health workers are projected to see 14% growth in their available jobs in that same time frame, much faster than the average across all occupations.

Advancement for community health workers and other public health professionals depends largely on available opportunities. Experienced community health workers and health educators can move into supervisory positions or management, especially after they earn advanced degrees in public health administration.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2022-2032 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

Public health salaries 

Public health salaries vary according to many factors, including where you live, whether you work for a hospital or social services organization and your level of experience. In 2022, community health workers earned between $32,180 and $73,730, according to BLS. Health education specialists earned between $37,140 and $106,210 during the same period.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Pursuing a career in public health 

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 begin their journey to an MPH with a healthcare-related degree, like a Bachelor of Science 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 of 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.

Explore public health careers and degree programs at University of Phoenix 

If you’re interested in a career in public health, University of Phoenix can help you get started. UOPX offers online courses that can fit around your schedule and teach you important skills that can help you step into a future role in healthcare.

Many students begin their journey to a Master of Public Health with a healthcare-related degree, like a bachelor’s degree in health administration. As mentioned, in this program you’ll learn many of the basics that inform a professional health career, including skills in health administration and quality management.

Once you’ve completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field, you can earn a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Community Health Leadership. This program prepares you with skills such as assessing and advocating for the health needs of communities, analyzing data related to the health of a target community, planning, designing, implementing and evaluating community health programs, and more.

Request more information on the UOPX website.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

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