The ultimate goal of public health is to achieve and sustain healthy populations and environments. In order to reach this goal, however, we must be able to understand the role behavior and social factors play and how they contribute to public health solutions and policies.
The study of social and behavioral health sciences involves how human behavior affects human interaction, decision making, and group processes.
The social and behavioral health sciences play an important role in public health policies and decisions, as the work professionals in this field do is focused on identifying and analyzing the social determinants and behavioral risk factors associated with any number of public health issues. They then use this information to better understand how to promote and achieve healthy behaviors within certain communities and populations.
The Science Behind Social and Behavioral Health
Our world is constantly being driven by advances in our understanding of human behavior— socially, politically, and economically. Psychology and neuroscience have given us an increasingly complex understanding about how people think and feel, and how they make decisions. This has allowed us to better design and deliver products, services, and policies. It comes as no surprise, then, that classical approaches to areas such as finance, economics, and public policy are now being influenced by behavioral finance, behavioral economics, and behavioral public policy.
These insights have greatly changed public health policies and programs by allowing public health professionals to understand how behaviors, social factors, and environmental factors affect the way public health programs are best administered and delivered.
Therefore, social and behavioral health sciences involve:
- Understanding the psychosocial, behavioral, community, and societal influences on the health of a specific population, including those who are disadvantaged
- Creating interventions that eliminate specific barriers to health across the lifespan
- Understanding how biological factors influence health, illness, and recovery
- Identifying risk factors that result in adverse health outcomes and strategies for promoting health and preventing disease
Jobs in the Social and Behavioral Health Sciences
Professionals in the social and behavioral health sciences must find effective solutions to widespread public health problems, which require planning, implementing, and administering programs that take into account individual behaviors and existing disparities. These researchers, administrators, and program developers use both quantitative and qualitative research methods to help them make decisions with regard to program planning and evaluation.
Typical duties of professionals in the social and behavioral health sciences include:
- Accessing and analyzing data to assess specific public health problems
- Applying social and behavioral theories to develop effective public health intervention programs
- Developing evaluation trials that assess the efficacy of public health interventions
- Communicating their findings to policymakers and to the public
- Advocating for the implementation of evidence-based public health programs
Most professionals working in the social and behavioral health sciences focus their careers on research related to contemporary public health issues, such as:
- Tobacco cessation
- Mental health
- Domestic violence
- Substance abuse
- School health
- Health equity
- Adolescent health
- Maternal and child health
- Physical activity and wellness
- Injury prevention
Research and related programs in this field of public health are completed in a variety of organizations and systems, such as:
- Healthcare organizations
- Colleges and universities
- Non-governmental organizations
- Applied health research programs
- Federal agencies (CDC, NIH, FDA, etc.)
- State and county health organizations
Some of the more widely recognized careers in the social and behavioral health sciences within the realm of public health include:
Evaluation specialists are responsible for collecting and analyzing data and developing/writing grant proposals, papers, research materials, and presentations on the results of their findings. The majority of their work involves managing the collection and interpretation of data and building models based on that data so as to make it available to other teams.
These professionals are required to interpret often-complex data and recognize the concerns or issues associated with it. Upon conducting in-depth analyses of both quantitative and qualitative data, evaluation specialists make recommendations and publish the results of their findings.
Evaluation specialists partner with project directors, lead the development and implementation of evaluation plans, and oversee a variety of data collection methods, such as logic models and survey and assessment instruments.
Population health interventions are policies or programs designed to address underlying social, economic, and environmental conditions. Interventions may be programs or policies designed and developed in the health sector, or they may involve education, housing, or employment. Intervention researchers are responsible for capturing the value of these interventions, how they bring about change, and the contexts in which they work best.
Intervention researchers are responsible for developing programs and theories based on the gathering of information and the synthesis of data. Their work also includes formulating and testing evidence-based intervention programs and publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals and other publications.
Intervention researchers develop theories based on the results of interventions and established protocols and determine how to best measure the outcomes of those interventions. These professionals also compare intervention methods as a way to guide their research.
Addiction Treatment Program Developers
Addiction treatment program developers design treatment programs that help individuals suffering from addictions. The ultimate goal of the work these professionals do is to improve the quality of life of addicted individuals by implementing specific treatment methods and customizing programs that are in line with patient needs.
These professionals are called upon to ensure the coordination of all addiction treatment efforts; ensure that patient success rates are optimized; hire, train, and manage counselors and other treatment specialists, and oversee the financial stability of the program.
Degree Programs for Public Health Professionals in the Social and Behavioral Health Sciences
Professionals in the social and behavioral health sciences possess the research, analysis, and leadership skills to drive key decisions in the field of public health. These specialists may focus their work on health communications, health disparities, or intervention planning, and they may work for public agencies, private organizations, and academic institutions, among others.
Many times, undergraduate work for these professionals is in business, public administration, epidemiology, public health, psychology, behavioral science, and other applicable disciplines. They may also focus their undergraduate study on applied research methods and data analysis. Like many other areas of public health, the social and behavioral health sciences often requires professionals who possess graduate degrees, such as the interdisciplinary Master of Public Health (MPH).
The MPH, the most widely recognized master’s degree for public health professionals, may be focused on Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, which is designed to address the behavioral, social, and environmental factors related to individual and population health and health disparities over the lifespan.
Students of these programs study social and behavioral theories, models, and methods of design for interventions meant to increase healthy behaviors and prevent/reduce disease and illness.
Departmental coursework requirements for an MPH in Social and Behavioral Health Sciences often includes:
- Principles of Epidemiology
- Applied Analytic Methods in Epidemiology
- Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Interventions
- Interdisciplinary Research Methods
- Qualitative Research Methods
- Quantitative Research Methods