The health and safety of people are largely influenced by the social, physical, and economic environment in which they live, as well as the behaviors they engage in. These many factors combine to affect the health of individuals, and by extension, the greater community they are part of.
As such, public health is practiced across a large number of disciplines and in a number of sectors, including:
- Public sector (government jobs in health department administration, public nursing, or disaster preparedness)
- Non-profit sector (many of which focus on a specific health disparity or population)
- Academic sector (usually focused on research)
- Private sector (healthcare facilities, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, consulting companies, etc.)
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Public health today is more complex, multifaceted, intricate, and effective than ever; therefore, today’s public health degrees are designed to address the challenges and opportunities associated with contemporary public health issues and how they are addressed at the local, state, national, and even global level.
Degrees in Public Health: Options for an Education in Public Health
Public health degrees are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While some public health professionals are best served by completing an undergraduate degree in public health alone, many others, particularly those striving to achieve more complex roles in public health, must achieve an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctorate degree.
The most common public health degree options include:
Associate’s Degrees in Public Health
An associate’s degree in public health provides a solid introduction to the field. Students in an associate’s degree program can expect to learn about the fundamental goals and challenges that today’s community of public health professionals face. Coursework in an associate’s degree program in public health is also often focused on state, federal, and international law as it relates to public health policy development and implementation.
Although most careers in public health demand more advanced degrees, associate’s degrees may be appropriate for individuals applying for entry-level or administrative support positions. Many times, coursework in an associate’s degree program can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree.
Coursework in an associate’s degree program in public health often includes:
- Interpersonal communications
- Leadership and motivation
- Health Services Organization
- Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
- Introduction to Ethics
Bachelor’s Degrees in Public Health
A bachelor’s degree in public health allows students to begin exploring the many areas of specialization within this field. Bachelor’s degree programs prepare students for a wide array of public health positions, as well as for future graduate study.
Bachelor’s degrees may be offered as Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) programs. While a BS may focus on the natural sciences, a BA will focus more on the social sciences. Therefore, a BS may be best suited for students interested in pursuing careers in biostatistics or epidemiology, while a BA may be best suited for those interested in pursuing careers in community health policy and administration, social and behavioral health, or health promotion.
A few institutions also offer the Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH), an undergraduate degree that is designed to prepare students through a broad program of study. Students in a BSPH program explore all five disciplines of public health, which include:
- Environmental health
- Health policy and management
- Social and behavioral sciences
Many times, BSPH programs allow students to augment their core coursework with coursework in a public health specialty.
Core requirements in a bachelor’s degree often include:
- The Ecology of Public Health
- Culture and Health
- Introduction to Epidemiology
- Health Behavior
- Global Health Promotion
- Preparedness and Disaster Management
- Chronic and Communicable Disease
- Environmental Health
Graduate Degrees in Public Health
The master’s degree in public health—more specifically, the Master of Public Health (MPH)—has increasingly become the gold standard for public health education in the U.S. Because of the popularity of this program, the American Public Health Association demands that every school accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health encompass study in all five disciplines of public health:
- Environmental health
- Health policy and management
- Social and behavioral sciences
In addition, most MPH programs allow students to specialize their education in one of the areas named above.
Alternately, the Master of Science (MS) and the Master of Health Sciences (MHS) are oriented for students seeking to teach or conduct research in public health, while the Master of Health Administration (MHA) is also designed to prepare students for careers in health policy, health service management, or hospital administration.
Doctorate Degrees in Public Health
The highest level of education that can be attained in public health is the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH). This degree is designed for students seeking careers as top-level researchers or university professors. Students in a DrPH program are focused on the practical elements of public health, not the academic aspects.
Alternately, students completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree or a Doctor of Science (ScD) in public health are typically focused on teaching and research. Therefore, public health professionals holding these degrees spend their careers doing fieldwork across the globe, teaching at a university, or conducting research in a national laboratory.
Dual Degrees in Public Health
There are a number of dual degree options for public health professionals:
- MPH/MD (Medical Doctor): A dual MPH/MD degree allows public health professionals to apply their clinical skills with a public health perspective. Individuals holding this dual degree may work in a traditional clinical setting or in a public health setting.
- MPH/JD (Juris Doctor): Graduates holding an MPH/JD typically focus their careers on health policy and public health law, such as how federal laws and regulations impact the public’s health.
- MPH/MSN (Master of Science in Nursing): Public health nurses generally hold an MPH/MSN degree. Public health nurses focus on managing community health interventions, free clinics and public health programs.
- MPH/MBA (Master of Business Administration): Professionals holding an MPH/MBA are able to apply their business leadership skills in any number of public health settings, such as hospitals, healthcare organizations, and nonprofit organizations.
- MPH/MSW (Master of Social Work): Public health professionals who hold an MPH/MSW work in the unique social work/healthcare system sector.
- MPH/PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy): Public health professionals who possess an MPH/PharmD degree have expertise in pharmacology, disease prevention, health promotion, and population health. These professionals possess knowledge in areas such as pharmacotherapy and medication safety.
Public Health Degree Concentrations: Options for Specializing a Public Health Degree
Public health degree programs—most often the MPH—allow students to concentrate their program of study on one of the five disciplines of public health or a similar area:
Behavioral and Social Sciences
The social and behavioral sciences involve utilizing a number of socio-cultural and behavioral factors to better understand how healthy environments are achieved and sustained. Therefore, students studying behavioral and social sciences in a public health program will learn how community and social factors contribute to a variety of public health policies and solutions. Courses in this type of MPH program include:
- Race, Ethnicity, and Health
- Qualitative Research Methods
- Assessment and Planning for Health Promotion
- Communications Strategies for Public Health Organizations
- Strategies for Public Health Advocacy
Biostatistics and Informatics
Biostatistics and informatics utilize statistical reasoning and methods to address major public health problems. Therefore, students studying biostatistics are interested in learning about the relationship between data, population studies, and health. Professionals focused on biostatistics and informatics study advanced statistical methodologies and how they can be applied to better understand trends among specific populations. They also interpret results of statistical analyses and translate them so as to allow those without science backgrounds to understand the information.
Coursework in this area of public health often includes:
- Biomedical Science
- Data Management and Data Analysis
- Public Health Surveillance Systems
The study of community health within a public health setting involves learning about the health characteristics of populations within a specific geographical area (a neighborhood, a city, or an entire region, for example). More specifically, public health professionals in community health view health through a community structure, or one the supports its members in making healthy choices through easily accessible public education resources.
Typical courses studied in a public health program focused on community health include:
- Health Education and Community Promotion
- Food Nutrition, Policies, and Interventions
- Violence and Injury Prevention
- Theory and Practice of Health Promotion
- Theory and Practice of Health Communication
Epidemiology involves the study of trends and patterns related to disease in populations. Public health epidemiologists are interested in how diseases spread among specific populations. They also create analytical models that provide insight into the causes and solutions to the spread of infections diseases.
Typical courses studied by individuals concentrating their public health education on epidemiology include:
- Infectious Disease Epidemiology
- Quantitative Data Management and Analysis
- Applied Survey Research in Epidemiology
- Epidemiology for Public Health Practice
The study of environmental health as it relates to public health involves identifying different factors in the environment and their effect on the health of individuals and populations. Environmental health risk factors involve smoke, water, and airborne pollutants that pose a hazard to certain populations.
Some of the courses commonly taken by public health students interested in environmental health include:
- Risk Sciences and Disaster Management
- Population Environmental Health and Sustainability
- Environmental Hazard Assessment
- Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology
Public health professionals who study global health are focused on the health of populations across the world, with no consideration given to national or political boundaries. The study of global health examines the ways health disparities and specific risk factors affect local and global populations.
Just a few of the courses that are often completed by public health students focusing their education on global health include:
- Health System Strengthening
- Program Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation
- Humanitarian Rights and Immigration Policy
Health Policy and Management
Health policy and management focuses on the delivery, quality, and costs of healthcare for both individuals and populations. Study in health policy and management in a public health degree program includes courses such as:
- Legal and Ethical Foundations for Healthcare
- Healthcare Delivery in the U.S.
- Health Economics
Health Promotion and Communication
Health promotion and communication professionals in the public health field find new ways to reach various populations with information about health risks and how to avoid these risks. Their work may include study in the strategies of health literacy and social marketing.
Courses in health promotion and communication often include:
- Global Health Communication Interventions
- Preventing Health Disparities
- Social Marketing
- Advanced Public Health Communication