The study of public health seeks to identify the factors that affect the health of communities, cities, and society at large, and to ensure that conditions and policies that protect health on this scale are put into place. This field has become more important than ever with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, unquestionably the most serious global public health challenge of our lifetime.
Public health experts are playing a vital role in shaping our response to COVID-19 by mapping the spread of the illness, identifying ways to slow its transmission and mitigate its impacts, and formulating recommendations for action geared towards policymakers as well as the public. For example, research by Imperial College London’s COVID-19 Response Team has provided important guidance to governments around the world on the importance of lockdowns in stopping the spread of the pandemic by bringing together epidemiological analysis with statistical models to predict the potential impacts of different policy options.
Of course, public health is relevant to many other issues besides studying pandemics. For example, some public health experts seek to establish links between environmental risk factors faced by certain socio-economic groups and health outcomes, providing critical research needed to support action. Other public health advocates look at the impacts of policy interventions in healthcare, analyzing the collective actions that can be taken to improve health across populations. Education on topics like the value of proper nutrition and the importance of vaccination is also essential to this field.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust public health experts into the spotlight, as policymakers and the public alike turn to them for guidance on how to navigate this unprecedented crisis. For example, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has become a household name for advising the federal government on its response to COVID-19 as part of his distinguished career guiding six U.S. Presidents on numerous domestic and global public health issues.
In other cases, public health professionals’ work often takes place “behind the scenes” of healthcare, providing the research, education, and expertise needed to prevent more familiar illnesses and injuries. Additionally, the field of public health is inherently multidisciplinary, with professionals coming from many different fields and working in many different contexts.
For example, academic researchers such as epidemiologists play a critical role in investigating patterns and causes of diseases such as diabetes and cancer across populations, and sociologists establish the social factors that may underlie these patterns. These highly-educated public health experts generally have masters degrees such as a Masters in Public Health (MPH), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A background in the ‘hard’ sciences like biology, engineering, or chemistry can also be valuable preparation for a career in public health. Environmental scientists use knowledge of biology and other life sciences to protect human health. Health and safety engineers rely on expertise in engineering as well as health to minimize risks from the built environment. In a more specialized way, occupational health and safety technicians collect data to analyze potentially hazardous work environments such as factories or industrial plants to identify potential health risks and develop adequate safety procedures.
Whether combating a global pandemic or helping members of specific communities or professions live healthier lives, public health jobs can intersect with many different types of career paths, and offer an opportunity to make a difference without necessarily having to go to medical school or work on the front lines of patient care.
Yes, there are a wide range of options available for students looking to learn about public health online, from individual courses to master’s degrees. And, as in other areas of study, online education gives you the opportunity to learn remotely from top-ranked schools on a flexible schedule from anywhere in the world.
Having a background in medicine or science before you start learning about public health can be helpful. You may take courses in biology, sociology, or anthropology to build your knowledge of the human body and human behavior. Alternatively, you may have paid or volunteer experience working in a doctor’s office, local clinic, or a laboratory. If you want to work with a specific population that speaks another language, it can be beneficial to learn that language so you can communicate with people. Other helpful skills include collaboration and communication skills.
If you have a passion for helping a specific community, want a job with plenty of variety, and desire to impact the health of people around the world, learning public health may be right for you. You may have opportunities to slow the spread of diseases in a particular community or fight diseases within a population. As a public health worker, you can put your problem-solving skills to use through roles like grant writing, training employees, coordinating meetings, and scheduling testing events.
Some topics related to public health that you can study include hard sciences like biology and epidemiology. You also may consider learning more about psychology, sociology, and anthropology, which can help you understand how people act when they are in groups. Even more topics you can learn are the languages spoken among a specific population or in a particular country, statistics and probability, and public speaking.
Places that hire people with a background in public health include government agencies, schools, private companies, and international organizations. They may operate in the United States or abroad, working in a specific community or country or with an identified population. Employers in the field of public health typically look for employees with a broad range of experience or education who can jump in and help where needed.