Public health is an exciting, dynamic field where professionals have the potential to make a real and lasting difference every single day. Through their work, public health professionals address healthcare disparities, promote equity, and generally work to improve positive health outcomes for the members of the communities that they serve.
If you are interested in a career in public health, it’s important to stay on top of the developments and trends that are influencing the field. Below, we take a closer look at four of the most important and lasting trends that are impacting the public health industry in 2021 and into 2022.
According to Healthy People 2030, a program designed to guide public health initiatives for the next decade, almost a quarter of the population in the United States will be 65 or older by 2060. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age into retirement and live longer and longer lives, their needs are expected to heavily influence virtually all areas of healthcare—including public health.
Older individuals face certain health challenges and risks simply because of their advanced age. These can include higher instance of chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, osteoporosis); higher rates of cancer; higher rates of heart attack and stroke; higher instance of injury (for example, from a fall); social isolation; mental health disorders; and more.
Older individuals are also more likely to experience difficulty moving and getting around, due to a variety of issues such as vision loss, lack of balance, joint issues, pain, and more. A key aspect of public health for an aging population is ensuring that neighborhoods and other built environments are age-friendly. This is such an important piece of public health that states like Massachusetts have established public health projects (such as the Age-Friendly Massachusetts Action Plan and the Massachusetts Health Aging Collaborative) to address it.
Additionally, older individuals have typically developed behaviors which have become engrained over the course of their lifetime. Examples include diet, exercise, and substance use (alcohol and tobacco), among others. Public health services therefore must work to educate these individuals to break or change these habits for more healthy outcomes. Older individuals are also more likely to experience difficulty
Therefore, an aging population is expected to dramatically increase demands on the public health system. The aging population also impacts the field of public health in another, less obvious way: The retirement of public health workers. As existing public health professionals themselves retire, they create a gap which must be filled.
These considerations are already spurring a tremendous growth in demand. According to Healthy People 2020, it’s expected that the United States will need an additional 250,000 public health workers at all levels (local, state, and federal).
The United States has been growing more and more diverse for decades, and this trend is only expected to continue in the coming years. While this increased diversity enriches our culture and communities, it can also present certain challenges for public health professionals such as language capacity, understanding of numerous cultural norms, and facilitating access to care.
Language barriers can, and often do exist between the populations seeking public health services and community services This language barrier can cause individuals to forgo routine checkups and miss appointments, and may directly lead to adverse health outcomes when instructions or directions are miscommunicated
With this in mind, public health professionals are expected to increasingly need cultural-sensitivity and humility training that will empower them to communicate with their target population more efficiently.
Telehealth has been emerging as an alternative to in-person care for a number of years. That being said, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown quickly elevated its importance in a way that was unexpected to many.
According to one statistics by McKinsey and Company, there were 78 times as many telehealth visits in April of 2021 compared to February of 2020 — a span of only two months. Even today, with the lockdown over and COVID-19 vaccines a reality, telehealth visits remain an order of magnitude higher than they were prior to the pandemic, as people grew accustomed to online care and the convenience that it offers.
Telehealth offers public health professionals the tremendous opportunity to reach more people, and can potentially prove to be a game-changer in addressing issues of inequity. Some areas where this might be the case include:
Of course, the emergence of telehealth also raises questions of equity in and of itself. As telehealth becomes more and more common, those individuals who do not have an affordable, reliable connection to the internet can be left behind.
Health policy is one of the most important and powerful tools that public health professionals have in the battle to improve their communities’ health. Why? Because they help to integrate the intersection of health care services and public health. This makes it easier to focus on the prevention—not just treatment—of injury and illness.
While this has always been the case, thanks to discussions around the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicare For All, recent years have seen a renewed interest in health policy at the federal, state, and local level. Even private organizations and employers are increasingly embracing health policy as a way to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees and the overall community they operate within.
This has opened a number of potential jobs and career paths in the field of public health. Public health professionals interested in crafting and influencing health policy might consider becoming one of the following:
Each of the trends outlined above is likely to have significant impacts on the field of public health, directly affecting the way that public health professionals are trained as well as the services they provide. Staying on top of these trends can help you position yourself for strength within the field, and allow you to anticipate the needs and demands that will be placed upon you.