Many people would like to work to improve the health of others, but also know that a clinical career in the field of healthcare (such as becoming a doctor or nurse) isn’t right for them. For those individuals, a career in public health offers a similar opportunity to make a difference in the health and wellbeing of their community.
But what exactly is public health? What kinds of public health careers are available? And why is this field of study so important?
Below, we answer these and other questions related to public health so that you’ll have a better understanding of whether or not it could be the right career choice for you.
The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines public health as the field of study and practice that promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work, and play.
“Public health is about the overall health of groups—communities, towns, neighborhoods, etc.,” says Dr. Leslie Mandel, professor of public health and health administration/director of undergraduate public health at Regis College. “It’s not about any one individual. It's really about trends and communities and looking at how health is going in one way or another for a group of people, and understanding what actions can be taken to improve, sustain or promote health and health equity.”
Public health is also about addressing healthcare disparities and promoting equity.
According to Healthy People 2020, “Health disparities are a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with economic, social, or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater social or economic obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, age, or mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”
While there’s a lot that goes into the field of public health, two important concepts to know about are the five Ps of public health and social determinants of health (SDH).
The five Ps of public health is a framework designed to help people quickly understand the many different facets and aspects of the field. Each “P” stands for one of the following components:
As mentioned above, public health is not about the health of any one individual, but of a particular population or community of people.
Public health not only seeks to improve the health of the community, but also to prevent adverse health issues (such as injury and illness).
Public health seeks to promote healthful activities amongst a population. This may include encouraging individuals to seek preventative medical care, maintaining healthy diets and exercise routines, seeking mental health care, getting vaccinated against infectious diseases, and more.
Public health requires policies and regulations, as well as the enforcement of these policies and regulations.
Public health seeks to educate people and communities about ways that they can prepare for potential crises, such as natural and manmade disasters and the harm they bring.
A key part of public health is understanding the concept of social determinants of health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, social determinants of health are the complex, integrated, and overlapping social structures and economic systems that include the social environment, physical environment, and health services; structural and societal factors that are responsible for most health inequities.
SDH are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national, and local levels, which are themselves influenced by policy choices.
In other words, they are the social and community-based factors that can impact the health of individuals and populations. Because they are so far-reaching, understanding these social determinants is a critical part of the field of public health, especially for those in “on-the-ground” roles.
Social determinants of health are most often broken into five main categories:
An individual’s economic stability will impact many aspects of their life, from the dietary choices they make to the housing they are able to afford and the health care they seek. Each of these impacts the individual’s health.
It has been demonstrated that individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to live longer and healthier lives. Whether or not an individual has access to quality, affordable education throughout their lives is therefore an important social determinant of health.
If an individual does not have access to quality health care for any reason (cost, inability to travel, etc.) they are more likely to forego preventative care and experience chronic illness.
Where a person lives and spends the majority of their time impacts their health in a variety of ways. Healthy, safe communities will be free from pollutants, provide the individual with means of exercise, and facilitate access to healthy foods, health care services, and more.
It has been shown that the more social connections an individual has as they age, the more likely they are to live healthy and productive lives.
“The good news about public health is that it encompasses so much,” says Mandel. “So many careers and professionals fall under the umbrella of public health, because they are people who contribute in one way or another to increasing the overall health of their communities.”
Mandel notes that some of the careers most directly linked to public health include health educators, community health workers, public health program coordinators, public health researchers, and epidemiologists.
As you can see, public health isn’t only affected by everything; it also affects virtually all aspects of society. This means that those working in the field play an incredibly important role in promoting the overall health of their communities, and in impacting the real lives of individuals.
If you are interested in potentially pursuing a career in public health, earning a degree such as a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health is an excellent first step toward that goal. Such a degree will allow you to learn about key concepts in statistics, behavioral health, epidemiology, leadership, social determinants, program development and public policy that all underlie the field, and prepare you to step into many entry-level roles where you can immediately begin affecting change on a daily basis. You will also get key experience in public health through two semesters of internships.
Not sure if a degree in public health makes sense for you? Read this article about how you can decide whether or not a public health degree is worth it.
Regis College offers a number of public health degrees for interested students, including our BA in Public Health, public health bachelor's degree completion program, and online Master of Public Health (MPH).