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Public health professionals work in a variety of settings and come from many different educational backgrounds. Nevertheless, they share the common goal of preventing disease at the population level. Public health professionals use a variety of strategies to accomplish their work, including educational programs, policy change and even research.
The term “public health” has different meanings, depending on who you talk to. It can describe a governmental system, a field of practice or a professional educational degree.
“Public health” can also be used to describe a system of governmental agencies at the national, state or local level. These agencies fulfill a legal responsibility to protect and promote the health of the citizens in a given jurisdiction.
An individual can be specially trained at a school of public health and receive a master’s degree, or a doctoral degree, in a sub-specialty area of public health, like epidemiology, biostatistics, administration, nutrition, community health education, maternal and child health, nursing, environmental health and more. However, you don’t necessarily need an advanced degree to work in the field of public health. Many professionals join the work force with an undergraduate degree.
There are many people who are considered public health professionals, because their work involves the prevention of diseases in communities and groups. People in this situation may not work for a governmental public health agency, and they might not have formal training in a public health area of study, but the nature of their work qualifies them as a public health worker.
Examples of public health sub-specialties are listed below, including estimates regarding pay, work environment and more. To learn more about academic requirements, visit What Kind of Education Will I Need?
Nevertheless, the best way to learn about a career is to talk to people who work in your area of interest.
Public health administrators often serve in managerial, policy or planning roles. Administrators are grounded in the principles, practices, and skills of administration, including assessing the burden of disease, managing programs aimed at preventing and controlling health threats, and developing policies and practices to improve health. Some topic areas important in administration include: public health law; human resources; budgeting and financing; marketing and communications; public health program development; health information management; geographic information systems; performance measurement and improvement; ethics, leadership, and community partnerships.
Public health administrators work in every type of health organization. Administration is a key function in most settings.
In Minnesota, this population of professionals will be in high demand over the next five to ten years. This is particularly true in the governmental system in Minnesota. Over 35 percent of Minnesota Department of Health’s staff will be eligible to retire in the next ten years, with over 55 percent of those individuals holding administrative and managerial positions. Local public health agencies report that 22 percent to 100 percent of their health administrators will retire within the next 10 years. That number does not take into account the number of administrators who work in other health organizations. The aging population will have a direct impact on retirement rates of those in administration and managerial roles in all organizations.
Biostatisticians help develop and conduct research to study patterns of disease and treatments for disease. Biostatisticians apply mathematics and statistics to compiling, analyzing and reporting on health-related information. They might estimate what percentage of a certain population is likely to develop a disease, consider the likelihood of disease transmission, and look at data from clinical trials and studies to determine the best method of intervention. Biostatisticians also use their expertise in sampling and statistical significance to assist health investigators in designing studies.
Biostatisticians can be found in state and federal government agencies, health departments, private industry, and research institutions.
The job market for biostatisticians tends to correlate with the biomedical industry job market. Biostatisticians are finding jobs in pharmaceutical companies and in other biomedical health care organizations performing statistical analyses for clinical trials and other work that brings new medical products to the market. Few will work in a position with the job title of “biostatistician”. Individuals who are flexible can find many ways to apply their knowledge and will find challenging opportunities in the job market.
Environmental health specialists work to protect people from hazards in the environment. This might include chemicals, fumes, dust, human and industrial wastes, radioactive materials, and bacterial contaminants. Some environmental health specialists are scientists who conduct research; others work as inspectors for public agencies and industry. Our drinking water, restaurants, and swimming pools are inspected for cleanliness and safety by a health department’s environmental health specialists.
Environmental health specialists with advanced training may specialize in:
- Air and industrial hygiene
- Environmental management
- Food protection
- Environmental chemistry/biology
- Water resources
- Work environment
Environmental health specialists can be found in state and federal government agencies, health departments, private industry, and research institutions.
Those who work in government are often assigned to specific communities. They spend most of their time outside the office conducting field inspections and investigations. Environmental Health Specialists enforce health and safety standards relating to food and other consumer products. They conduct routine inspections of establishments open to the public to ensure that minimum health and safety standards are met. They investigate leaking underground storage tanks and oversee mitigation efforts for cleanup. They conduct water quality sampling to ensure that drinking water supplies are potable and palatable. Environmental Health Specialists perform inspections of public pools and recreational areas to ensure the public's safety. Environmental Health Specialists prepare inspection reports and issue notices of violation and needed corrections.
Environmental health specialists will also see job opportunities grow over the next few years due to an increase in retirements. In addition, specialists with broad education and skills will find themselves applying their environmental health skills in new and different ways, especially in the private sector. Although, these jobs many not always have “environmental health specialist” in the title.
Epidemiologists study patterns of disease in populations and how to prevent or control disease. For example, an epidemiologist may conduct research on factors associated with birth defects or on the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments—they would be considered chronic disease epidemiologists. Those who study diseases that spread from one person to another are often considered infectious disease epidemiologists. Epidemiologists provide scientific data to help governments, health agencies, health care providers, and communities deal with epidemics and other health issues.
Epidemiologists can specialize in a number of disease areas including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, environmental/occupational diseases, reproductive health, infectious diseases, and research about health care.
Epidemiologists work at universities, research institutions, state and federal health agencies, major health organizations, and large corporations.
The growing aging population will increase the need for scientists skilled in the research and prevention of disease. The rapidly expanding health field will also spur the need for researchers who can provide information to help governments, health agencies, health care providers and communities deal with epidemics.
Health educators are professionals who design, conduct and evaluate activities to shape behavior of populations. Health educators use both education and policy change to shape behavior of populations. Health educators inform people about the causes and prevention of health problems, especially those factors related to life-style, work, and culture. Health educators provide education, and community organization to help others improve their health. They may conduct a “community assessment ” to gauge health risks in an entire area, then plan how to educate the community about those risks and what to do about them.
- International health
- Maternal and child health
- Chronic disease prevention
- Occupational health and safety
- Minority and multicultural health
- School health
Health educators are employed by public health departments, schools, corporations, and community or government agencies. Health educators are employed under a range of job titles such as patient educators, health education teachers, trainers, community organizers and health program managers.
Employment OutlookPublic health professionals working in positions titled "health educator", make up a relatively small percent of the public health government workforce in Minnesota, somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. However, professionals trained as public health educators fill a wide-variety of positions outside the governmental system that often do not have “public health educator” in the title. Positions using the skills and knowledge of public health educators will continue to be needed, due to the increasing focus on prevention strategies as a way to save money and improve quality of life. The increasing aging population will also require more preventive health services and is expected to contribute to job growth in this area.
Public health nurses are nurses trained to focus on populations. They use their clinical knowledge of health and illness to work with individuals and families in order to improve the overall health of communities. Public health nurses coordinate community based interventions for immunizations, blood pressure testing, other health screenings and more. PHNs take health research findings and apply it to the real life situations of individuals and groups through targeted interventions, programs, and advocacy.
Public health nurses work in an extremely wide-range of positions. They may be found working in government (state or local public health agencies), private agencies, including clinics, schools, retirement communities, and other community settings The work of public health nursing takes place in urban and rural areas, clinics, community centers, schools, shelters, and homes.
The outlook for jobs in the area of public health nursing is especially strong, particularly in some rural parts of Minnesota. Public health nurses (PHNs) make up 25 percent of the local governmental public health workforce in Minnesota. PHNs can make up over 70 percent of the workforce in some smaller public health agencies. The percent of PHNs working for the state health department is smaller. Over the next ten years, agencies will experience retirement rates for PHNs ranging from 27 to 58 percent Additionally, PHNs working in private and nonprofit settings are expected to experience comparable retirement rates, which will lead to additional job opportunities.