From public policy makers, research scientists and community educators, to frontline mental health and medical service providers, the United States is expected to need more than 250,000 new public health workers by 2020 in order to adequately meet the nation’s needs. The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) revealed these projections in a recent report, highlighting the fact that nearly one-fourth of the nation’s current public health workforce is approaching retirement.
The good news is that advanced education among existing and aspiring public health professionals can take up the slack created by too few qualified people in the workforce. Public health professionals from all fields that develop a greater breadth and depth of understanding of public health in the global context will be vital to counter-balancing the shortage of public health workers in the coming years.
As the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) requires all Master of Public Health (MPH) programs to focus on the core methodologies of biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, health service administration as well as social and behavioral sciences, these programs are uniquely designed to prepare public health professionals to address and resolve the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century.
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An Examination of the Master of Public Health
In 2012, the ASPPH spearheaded a task force that resulted in the 2014 publication: A Master of Public Health Degree for the 21st Century: Key Considerations, Design Features, and Critical Content of the Core.
This publication, which represents a broad view of public health education in the U.S., is focused largely on the Master of Public Health degree, as it has long been regarded as the cornerstone of education in public health. As such, the publication features a well-defined rationale of the MPH and how it fits into the evolving nature of education in public health.
This landmark publication revealed the purpose, objective, and value of today’s MPH:
- The MPH is expected to increase in value as societies, organizations, and individuals shift their focus to population health and healthcare as key concerns.
- An MPH degree is rigorous, applied, and skills-based, which ensures that students are well-prepared to function effectively in their chosen specialization and work setting.
- The MPH degree serves as an advanced degree that is focused on a specialist education, which is directly responsive to the needs of prospective employers.
- MPH employers in the coming years will decreasingly be public health agencies and more often be other government agencies, healthcare delivery organizations, drug and device manufacturers, and insurers, among others.
- Because public health is inherently interdisciplinary and interprofessional, MPH degrees prepare students to function in increasingly interprofessional and interdisciplinary roles and settings.
- MPH degrees must always be competency-based.
- MPH degrees must always be aligned with the essential values of the field of public health.
- Because the MPH degree is a professional degree, schools of public health must ensure that the MPH education continues to have strong connections to a broadly defined public health practice.
- MPH degrees must include global health perspectives and content, as global health is public health that includes both domestic and international issues.
The Design Features of the 21st Century MPH Degree
- The MPH must be based on a rigorous, carefully sequenced, and structured curriculum.
- Public health schools should offer in-depth education in a number of concentration areas that are responsive to a number of factors, including:
- The needs of employers
- The strengths of the institution
- The interests of its students
- MPH degrees must include a minimum of 42 credit hours.
- The concentration curricula of an MPH degree should be designed to provide the in-depth, rigorous education that today’s employers are demanding.
- Concentration requirements of an MPH degree should consist of at least four courses beyond the introductory level.
- MPH concentrations may be within the traditional disciplines, cross-disciplines, and in emerging topics and fields.
- MPH degrees must also offer students the option of attaining a generalist degree.
- The learning objectives for MPH degrees are similar across all accredited programs.
MPH Core Competency Model
The common core of the MPH degree is designed to educate students in the 5 core discipline areas of public health (biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, health policy and health administration, and social and behavioral sciences), as well as 7 interdisciplinary/cross-cutting areas:
Biostatistics: The development and application of statistical reasoning and methods that analyze, address, and solve problems in healthcare, public health, and population-based and biomedical and clinical population-based research
Environmental Health Sciences: The study of environmental factors, including physical, chemical, and biological factors that affect the health of a community
Epidemiology: The study of patterns of disease and injury in human populations and the application of the findings to control the spread of diseases and other health problems
Health Policy and Management: Includes study of the delivery, quality, and costs of healthcare for both individuals and populations; assumes a managerial and policy concern in health services, which include costs, organization, financing, accessibility of care, and outcomes
Social and Behavioral Sciences: Addresses the social, cultural, and behavioral factors related to individual and population health, and health disparities over a lifetime
Communication and Informatics: The ability to manage, organize, and collect data so as to produce information that is exchanged; the ability to design an information and knowledge exchange process that achieves specific objectives
Diversity and Culture: The ability to interact with diverse individuals and communities as a way to achieve an intended public health outcome
Leadership: The ability to create and communicate a shared vision for a changing and evolving future
Public Health Biology: The biological and molecular context of public health
Professionalism: The ability to demonstrate ethics values, choices, and professional practices when making public health decisions; to consider the effects choices have on social justice and accountability, community stewardship, and equity
Program Planning: The ability to plan for the development, implementation, and evaluation of strategies as to improve health outcomes
Systems Thinking: The ability to recognize properties that result from interactions between human and social systems and how they then affect relationships among individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and environments
Working Toward the MPH: What to Know about Preparing for an MPH Program
Before a Master of Public Health is pursued, students must complete an undergraduate degree. There is a wide array of Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)-accredited public health programs at the undergraduate level that are designed to prepare students to begin a career in public health or begin a graduate program. However, an undergraduate degree in public health specifically is not required in order to pursue an MPH, as students in public health may come from a variety of educational backgrounds.
There are a number of undergraduate degrees that may prove beneficial in certain areas of public health. For example, students interested in epidemiology or biostatistics are often well served by focusing their undergraduate studies on an area of math or science, while students interested in behavioral sciences or health education often focus their undergraduate studies on sociology, anthropology, or psychology.
- Associate degrees in public health require about 60 hours of coursework (about two years of study). This post-secondary degree may prepare students for entry-level work in the public health field, and is also often used to strengthen a student’s credentials when pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public health.
- Bachelor’s degrees in public health (BS, BA, or BSPH), a minimum requirement for most jobs in the public health sector, provide a comprehensive, basic education in public health, which includes study in areas such as epidemiology, statistics, public health principles, health policy and regulation, administration, ethics, etc. These programs generally take about four years to complete.
Pursuing the MPH: Admission and Program Requirements
Most CEPH-accredited MPH programs have strict entrance requirements in place. Typical considerations include:
- Undergraduate work and minimum GPA
- Career achievement
- Professional/volunteer experience
- Entrance examination/essay
Schools of public health may offer the MPH through an on-campus program, an online program, or a hybrid of the two. In addition to the traditional MPH, many schools offer executive programs, which are designed specifically for public health professionals currently working in the field. These programs often offer flexible programming options for the working professional.
Most public health schools allow students to specialize their MPH (see MPH Core Competency Model above), while some schools offer dual degree programs designed for students who want to focus on a specific area of healthcare and work as a clinician in the public health field:
Other concurrent degree options offered through select schools of public health that partner with other schools and departments include:
- Master of Business Administration/Master of Public Health (MBA/MPH)
- Master of City Planning/Master of Public Health (MCP/MPH)
- Master of Journalism/Master of Public Health (MJ/MPH)
- Master of Public Policy/Master of Public Health (MPP/MPH)
- Master of Social Welfare/Master of Public Health (MSW/MPH)
Program Structure and Design: What to Expect From an MPH Program
All MPH programs begin with a comprehensive study of the following five disciplines:
- Environmental health
- Health policy and management
- Social and behavioral sciences
Thereafter, coursework and a final practicum are focused on a chosen public health specialty. Typical coursework in these areas of study include:
- Principles of Epidemiology
- Environmental and occupational health
- Health services policy, management, and finance
Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Foundations of Public Health Education
- Public Health Communication
- Public Health Informatics
- Community Health Programming
- Categorical Data Analysis
- Survival Data Analysis
- Public Health and Research Ethics
- Risk Assessment
- Exposure Assessment
- Principles of Toxicology
- Law and Policy in Environmental Health
Health Policy and Management
- Healthcare Leadership and Communications
- Public Health Practice and Management
- Policy and Politics of Health
- Current Topics in Health Services
Depending on the institution, students may also have the option to focus their MPH on a number of interdisciplinary or emerging areas of public health, such as:
- Global health
- Maternal, infant and child
- Infectious diseases and vaccinology
- Public health nutrition
Additional Options for Graduate Study in Public Health
In addition to the MPH, students may pursue graduate study by completing one of the following:
- Master of Arts in Public Health (MAPH): Designed for research, statistical, and analytical positions in public health
- Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH): Designed for students who wish to pursue doctoral-level study or for research or technical positions in public health
- Master of Health Administration (MHA): Designed for health policy, hospital administration, and health service management positions in public health
Doctoral-level study in public health is achieved by pursuing one of the following:
- Doctor of Public Health (DrPH): Designed for students pursuing careers as research leaders, public health policymakers, and public health practitioners
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): Designed for students with career goals related to public health research or teaching at the university level