If you watch TV shows like "ER" or have friends who are training to become nurses, doctors or other clinical professionals, you might think the only healthcare careers available are those focused on meeting individual patient needs. They're the jobs that tend to get the most airplay, literally and figuratively.
But behind the scenes are healthcare professionals who make their own critical contributions in the sometimes overlooked but important world of public health.
Public health addresses the healthcare issues of communities, particularly populations that might be deemed "at risk" for certain diseases or conditions. Health promotion and disease prevention are at the core of public health, and professionals in the field tend to focus on one of three broad activities, according to the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH):
- Assessing and monitoring the health of communities to pinpoint existing and potential health problems and set health priorities.
- Working with government and community leaders to develop policies to address identified health problems and priorities.
- Ensuring that all people have access to quality, cost-effective healthcare, particularly as it relates to health promotion and disease prevention, and continually evaluating that care's effectiveness.
11 Ways to Specialize
These three missions encompass hundreds of job titles, specialties and subspecialties. You'll never be able to learn about all of them. But you can get a basic idea of the types of careers you can explore by looking at the 11 core areas of study in public health as defined by the ASPH:
- Health Services Administration: Health services managers and administrators coordinate health services, education and/or policy in settings such as hospitals, clinics, managed-care organizations and public health agencies.
- Biostatistics: Biostatisticians use statistical procedures and mathematical methods to analyze public health problems, programs and research efforts.
- Epidemiology: Epidemiologists investigate the causes and patterns of disease and disability among populations.
- Health Education and Behavioral Sciences: Professionals in this specialty area study how psychological, sociological, anthropological and even political concerns can affect public health.
- Environmental Health Sciences: According to the ASPH, half of those who work in public health focus on this specialty. Environmental health scientists examine factors in the natural environment (air, water and land) that affect people's well-being.
- International/Global Health: Specialists in this area look for ways to improve health and health standards in developing countries around the world.
- Biomedical and Laboratory Practice: Bacteriologists, microbiologists, biochemists and others in this subspecialty develop laboratory techniques to help diagnose and treat diseases and other conditions affecting people's health.
- Nutrition: Nutritionists teach people how to eat well to stay healthy.
- Public Health Practice: These generalists take the principles of epidemiology, biostatistics, behavioral science and environmental health right to the people -- the "public" of public health -- to teach health promotion and disease prevention.
- Maternal and Child Health: These health practitioners study the often complex and unique public health problems affecting women and children.
- Occupational Safety and Health: These specialists identify potential health and safety hazards in the work environment and focus on preventing and/or controlling them.
Be a Big-Picture Healer
If you're a big-picture thinker and would like to make a difference in the health of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people, then public health may be just the career remedy you need.
To learn more about career paths in public health, check out the Association of Schools of Public Health and the American Public Health Association.