This section contains information designed to offer greater insight into the different disciplines that comprise the field of public health, and to provide information for those who may be contemplating pursuing education or a career in this field.
What Is Public Health?
Most people would have little difficulty identifying what is meant by medical care, especially services provided by doctors and hospitals to those suffering from illness or disease. But they are probably less familiar with services and activities that constitute public health. Public health is a field that seeks to promote the health of all people in a community.
|Examples of public health activities include the following:|
|•||Identifying health risks and working with different facets of the community to improve physical and mental health, prevent disease and health risks (such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity), and reduce substance abuse and violence.|
|•||Protecting against environmental hazards and increasing the safety of drinking water, food, and the environment.|
|•||Formulating policies to reduce death and disability from unintentional injuries and to protect the safety of the public.|
|•||Preventing, identifying, and controlling infectious disease outbreaks.|
|•||Determining who gets certain diseases and why.|
|•||Evaluating community-based clinical and public health programs and interventions to assess which ones are effective as well as cost-effective in improving the population’s health.|
One reason that public health tends to be less familiar to many people is that it is often less visible, yet most people receive benefits daily from public health services and activities. For example, we take for granted the fact that water we drink from our faucets is clean and safe, the automobiles we drive have the latest safety features that reduce our risk of injury and limit the amount of pollution created by gasoline byproducts, and our risk of illness is lower because many programs exist for immunizing the population against infectious diseases.
Public health vs. clinical health services
Most of the public health services and activities listed above tend to emphasize prevention of disease rather than treatment of illness. They also emphasize one important difference between public health and individual medical care. While private doctors and hospitals treat individual patients one-on-one for specific illnesses or diseases, the focus of public health is often on an entire population. Public health professionals are concerned with the health of the community, including the causes and risk factors underlying the spread of disease, developing and promoting practices to improve a population’s health, and developing health policy that promotes a population’s health. This population-based approach to improved health forms the core of public health activities, and often incorporates many different health disciplines.
Current and future public health challenges
The world changes constantly, and so do the population’s health needs and threats to good health. Public health professionals today confront challenges in how to identify and prevent spread of disease caused by new, emerging, or re-emerging infectious agents, such as E-coli, Ebola, and Hanta virus. There are also new threats through use of biologic, chemical, and nuclear agents that involve important potential health effects for the community. Other challenges facing public health professionals include reducing health care disparities by people of different age, gender, race, or ethnicity and reversing the trend in behaviors that currently lead to poor health, injury, or violence, particularly among adolescents and certain other population subgroups.
Public Health Careers
Many professional disciplines are involved in assessing, preventing, or treating public health problems. These include medicine, nursing, nutrition, social work, environmental science, health administration, mathematics, and psychology. As a result, while public health professionals tend to be trained in and focus on one specific discipline, they must be familiar with other fields and be able to work in concert with professionals from other disciplines in order to achieve the desired outcome of improved health and prevention of disease.
Who provides public health services?
Public health services are provided in a number of different settings and by different individuals or organizations. Public health providers include city, county, state, and federal governmental agencies that provide health services to individuals of a community, often through clinics or hospitals they operate or by having professionals (such as public health nurses) visit homes. Private physicians, hospitals, and other providers not directly associated with these organizations also frequently provide some public health services. In addition, there are many non-governmental organizations whose primary focus is to prevent disease and reduce unhealthy practices. These are just a few of the providers of public health services that exist in most communities.
Ethics and Public Health?
Public health is viewed by many as both a job and a calling to public service. As such, the public places a great deal of authority and trust in the ability of public health professionals to evaluate alternatives and make decisions that are best for the community. What values guide these decisions?
The Public Health Leadership Society has compiled a set of twelvePrinciples of the Ethical Practice of Public Health that they suggest should guide public health professionals in their jobs. These encompass such basic tenets as respecting the rights of individuals in the community, empowering disenfranchised individuals, providing information to implement effective policies, protecting the confidentiality of that information, and respecting diverse values, beliefs, and cultures. For a complete list of all principles, please click here.
Public Health Education
Individuals who are interested in a career in public health may choose among many different disciplines as well as ways of receiving education and training. Opportunities may exist at all levels of education. However, in general, jobs involving greater responsibility and authority are given to those who receive university education.
High School Preparation
There is no specific course of study in high school to prepare for a particular public health profession due to the breadth of disciplines encompassing public health. In general, students would be advised to take as many courses in mathematics and science as possible.Students should work closely with their academic advisor to plan a course of study that will prepare them to pursue health or public health professions.
Community College Programs
There are a number of specific programs at the community college level designed to provide education and training in focused areas. Examples include nursing and medical equipment technicians. Interested individuals are encouraged to contact their local community college to request additional information.
Education at the university level provides the opportunity to specialize in a particular area involving public health.
Undergraduate and Graduate Health Programs
Students may study and receive a Bachelor’s Degree in specific fields of study that lend themselves to working in public health. These include psychology, many of the science fields, health education, statistics, and social work to name just a few. There are also a number of programs at universities in California and Hawaii that provide education and degrees in public health at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Graduate Schools of Public Health
There are four accredited schools of public health in California. These schools are reviewed periodically by a national organization to ensure that they offer a high quality educational experience. These schools offer the Master of Public Health (MPH), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and many other degrees in a variety of areas relevant to public health. Each university and program has specific admission and graduation requirements. Interested students should consult the schools of their choice for more information. A list of accredited Schools of Public Health throughout the U.S. may be found on the website of the Association of Schools of Public Health