Public health is a multidisciplinary approach to promoting health, preventing disease, and treating conditions in groups and societies. It involves study in a wide variety of health and science fields, such as biostatistics, epidemiology, nursing, microbiology, environmental health, economics, medicine, nutrition, and even veterinary science. A public health professional focuses on identifying risk factors for disease, reducing behaviors that can harm health and promoting behaviors that enhance health, studying disease transmission, and developing broad-reaching programs for treating conditions that have an impact on a variety of populations. Since public health encompasses so many fields, these professionals often have obtained advanced degrees such as a master’s degree in public health, or are medical doctors with a public health specialization.
The identification of risk factors for disease is essential in public health. Public health professionals need to learn what causes disease and how it spreads, and also understand the statistics involved in epidemiology. For instance, when John Snow discovered the link between contaminated water and cholera in 1854, major cities took steps to develop clean drinking water supplies, and the incidence of cholera dropped markedly.
Professionals in this field work on promoting behaviors that can improve health and reduce factors that increase illness and mortality. Public health campaigns promoting breastfeeding around the world have improved the health of young infants while lowering their risk of death due to cholera and other water-borne diseases. Health departments have taken steps to reduce tobacco smoking, which has lowered the incidence of asthma attacks in the targeted populations.
By understanding the cause of disease, steps can be taken to lessen or eradicate the sources and even the disease itself. For instance, once Salk and Sabin developed polio vaccines, a worldwide public health campaign to vaccinate people against the disease was started, and it has largely eliminated polio around the globe.
Specialists in public health learn not only about medical conditions, but also about environmental science, medical economics, and public health policy. They have to have a thorough knowledge of basic sciences in order to pinpoint causes of disease in the environment, such as radiation or water contamination. They also need to understand the economics of health care delivery systems. By reducing disease severity and incidence, health care costs can be reduced, freeing up that money for other important programs. Public health professionals frequently work with lawmakers to develop policies and laws that benefit society as a whole.
There are two routes typically taken to become a public health professional. One way is to become a medical doctor and then do a residency or fellowship in public health. The other route typically taken is to earn the MPH, or Master’s degree in Public Health.
Nearly all students who enter an MPH program have a bachelor’s degree in science or nursing. Those who have a liberal arts degree are also eligible to enter a master’s program, provided they have completed the necessary science and mathematics coursework for entrance. Practical work experience in the medical field is usually required as well. Much of the coursework in a master’s program is centered on statistics, epidemiology, disease risk and reduction, and the delivery of health care in various populations.
For those who enjoy the challenges of learning a vast array of subjects, want to help improve the lives and health of those they serve, or desire to help stop the spread of disease, becoming a public health professional is an ideal career choice.