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Population health vs. public health: choosing a specialty

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One-on-one relationships are the core of health care. If you experience symptoms of a serious illness, you might seek the counsel of your primary care doctor, who would evaluate your symptoms, reference your medical history, and potentially prescribe a treatment plan.


For some specialists, however, health care isn’t just about the relationship between a doctor and a patient, but rather about the interaction between caregivers and an entire community. The fields of population health and public health both allow specialists to consider the health and wellness needs of large groups, as opposed to individual patients.


But what is the distinction between population health vs. public health? And if you’re interested in a health-related career, what should you know about the two disciplines?

What is population health?

Population health refers to the health statuses and outcomes of an entire group of people. Most often, this population is described in terms of geography. For example, a population health specialist might focus on the statuses and outcomes of a particular neighborhood, town, or region.

Factors that impact population health

A range of factors determine population health, including everything from poverty to education to housing opportunities. For example, population health specialists may assess a community and find a high rate of juvenile obesity, which they may be able to link to unhealthy meals served in an underfunded school cafeteria.


Generally, population health specialists focus less on the treatment of chronic diseases, and more on educating the population to help prevent these conditions in the first place. For example, a population health specialist might advocate for better school nutrition programs, for more equitable access to health care, for efforts to reduce environmental toxins, or for greater availability of contraceptives.


Population health often focuses on a concept known as the social determinants of health (SDOH), which can have a measurable impact on the health outcomes of a specific population. These include access to health care services and transportation as well as public norms and attitudes toward public safety. Social determinants stand in contrast to physical determinants, which include factors like access to green space and exposure to harmful chemicals.

Population health jobs

If you want to make an impact on a community’s health and wellness outcomes, you can consider a number of population health career paths. A few common examples include:


  • Dietician and nutritionist. These professionals help people make informed dietary choices, and may play a role in developing healthy lunches served in schools or other institutions.
  • Epidemiologist. Epidemiologists monitor the spread of infectious diseases and develop protocols for containing those diseases.
  • Community health worker/community clinic employee. Community health workers may serve as liaisons for treatments in public clinics.
  • Social service manager. The role of the social service manager is to help different individuals and families access the health services they need by helping break down cultural, linguistic, or other barriers to care.
  • Health educator. One of the core functions of population health is to keep the public informed about wellness and disease, which requires the input of specialized educators.

What is public health?

The field of public health is closely related to population health, so much so that the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Generally speaking, public health focuses on enacting widespread social change, including policy change, to improve health outcomes for large populations. Or, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts it, “Public health works to protect and improve the health of communities through policy recommendations, health education and outreach, and research for disease detection and injury prevention.” This may happen through health departments collaborating with local colleges and universities as well as community-based political institutions.


A key distinction: Population health tends to focus on a narrow group, usually determined by geographic boundaries. Public health often addresses larger communities, including those determined not by geography but by race, gender, immigration status, disability level, or other factors.

Examples of public health initiatives

Recent examples of public health advocacy include:


  • Public awareness campaigns to discourage tobacco use
  • Lead-abatement programs
  • Initiatives to include fluoride in local water sources
  • Efforts to eliminate pollution and create cleaner, purer air

Public health jobs

If you’re interested in working as a public health professional, you can choose from a number of career trajectories, including:


  • Public health nurse. These licensed nurses often divide their time between patient care, education, and advocacy.
  • Health educator. As in population health, educators play a crucial role in informing the public and helping shape public policy backed by data.
  • Emergency management specialist. These professionals help prepare communities for catastrophic events, including natural disasters or pandemics.
  • Public awareness or advocacy leader. These leaders advocate awareness of new policies and legislative action and play a crucial role in public health.
  • Public health analyst. Analysts help compile and interpret data about public health trends, which can be useful for guiding community decision-making.

Population health vs. public health: Choosing a career

If you aspire to have an impact on the well-being of entire populations, public health and population health provide meaningful opportunities. Both disciplines offer career paths for those with a formal clinical background as well as those who study in business or health administration.


For example, by seeking a nursing or medical degree, you could deliver direct patient care in community health clinics or other settings or serve as a public health educator. If you’re interested in a business or finance education, you could prepare to work as a policy advocate or analyst.


Professionals focused on population or public health typically pursue advanced degrees in health administration or public health. Such programs often offer opportunities to specialize in health policy, biostatistics, or epidemiology.

Making a difference in community health

If you want to build healthy communities and create environments where all people can access preventative services, population health and public health both offer opportunities to make a difference.


    Your first step is pursuing the right education. Our recommendation engine analyzes your educational and career goals to find the right program for you. With full-time, part-time, and accelerated choices — most of which can be completed remotely — your path to a new career begins here.


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