“Health care is vital to all of us some of the time, but public health is vital to all of us all of the time.” – C. Everett Roop
What is Public Health?
As defined by the CDC Foundation, “Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases.” The many facets of public health include advocating for laws that help in spreading the word about ways to stay healthy and giving science-based solutions to problems.
Extreme situations like an epidemic or a natural calamity can cast an incredible amount of pressure on the public health infrastructure of a country. In addition to posing a great danger to the healthcare ecosystem, such situations can demand unprecedented coordination and perseverance from health professionals. This is when International organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) are called upon to respond.
Career Alternatives in Public Health
A career in public health can be a rewarding experience for individuals keen on creating an indelible social impact in the health sector at a local, national or international level. One of the major pulls of the Public Health sector is how well it caters to diverse interests and aptitudes. Following are some of the public health career opportunities:
- Biostatistician – If you are blessed with a flair for crunching numbers, love analyzing data or exploring natural sciences, the subfield of biostatistics offers a great career prospect. This career will be suitable for those adept at statistics, mathematics, and computer science as you will be analyzing large data sets. Hence, a bachelor’s degree in any of these subjects will enable you to break into this occupation. For instance, a biostatistician can be responsible for assessing the impact of a pharmaceutical drug’s clinical trial on communities affected by, say, Malaria and using statistical analysis to drive conclusions.Pharmaceutical companies often hirebiostatisticians to run clinical studies to evaluate the effectiveness of a drug on particular strata of the population. You can also be part of the International Society for Clinical Biostatistics (ISCB) which brings Biostatisticians together from across the globe to bolster medical research, share ideas, and discuss the future of the field. Through this membership, you will be able to gain access to many conferences and events around the world, as well as obtain information on public health job opportunities. Bureau of Labour Statistics has projected job growth of 33% for all statisticians by 2026 with the average salary being $105,643 per year.
- Epidemiologist – Epidemiology involves studying the causes, occurrences, and distribution of health-related events to treat diseases and avert any future outbreaks. As an epidemiologist or ‘disease detective’, you will be studying patterns of diseases and infections in a population segment, running lab tests, collecting and studying samples, interviewing subjects, developing vaccines, or pursuing field research work. A scientific temper and analytical disposition are essential for succeeding in this field, as you will be providing recommendations on issues based on accepted scientific understanding of infectious and emerging diseases in a global context. You can hone your skills by participating in programs like Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP) and effectively respond to international health threats.
Epidemiologists may work for public and private health institutions, government agencies, laboratories, pharmaceutical businesses, or universities. If you’re working with international or public health organizations, you will have to track the spread of disease and form effective plans to combat health problems. to do this, you need to conduct field research to gather data and then analyze and interpret the data to develop solutions. The median salary of epidemiologists is $69660, and the epidemiologist job outlook is 9% growth between 2016 to 2026.
- Public Health Attorney – Public health attorneys work with local, state and national legislatures to craft policies, set regulations and pass laws governing public health standards and work as advocates for patients and victims, balancing the public good against the individual’s rights. If you aspire to the role of a legal representative, it is important that you have strong public speaking skills to negotiate a case for your client. You will be spending a large part of your time on conducting research and filing reports, hence, with those strong clerical and administration skills, you are positioned to gain an edge in this field. Drafting documents in a way that expresses arguments or proposals clearly and logically will constitute the major chunk of this job. Therefore, if you’re keen on working the legal angle, getting involved in the design of public health policies, then, advocating on public health cases to make a tangible impact in the community can be a good fit for you.
To become a public health attorney, an individual must hold a Juris Doctor (JD) degree and be licensed to practice law in the state. Additionally, a specialty in health law is helpful for attorneys who want to specialize in public health. For instance, you may undertake health law courses offered by prestigious institutions like Georgetown Law, PennLaw, Washington College of Law etc.
- Health Administrator – Individuals with an aptitude for business can explore options in Public Health Administration. This job will require you to apply organizational theory and strategic thinking to streamline operations and optimize costs at medical institutions. For example, managing food aid transportation and logistics to aid disaster victims with optimal costs or integrating skill development programs at a public health NGO can fall under the purview of a Health Administrator. Comfort with coding and billing software is necessary since healthcare facilities now use electronic health records (EHR).If you wish to reach upper management and undertake more responsibility, earning a master’s degree in health administration is the educational path for you. On the other hand, a doctorate in a management-related field will help you secure higher levels of employment in the healthcare system.
However, most employers prefer to hire someone who has a strong background of experience in administration or in one particular area of healthcare.You may opt for public health internships like the one withDoctors Without Borders or the Administrative Fellowship program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital, which will facilitate the development of management skills and enhance legal knowledge for understanding healthcare policies, as well as strengthen the foundation of your academic program.
- Health Educators – Health educators teach individuals about behaviors that promote wellness by instructing them on nutrition and the avoidance of unhealthy activities like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. They conduct informational sessions, run awareness campaigns on public health issues like substance abuse, tobacco consumption, and design behavioral tactics to motivate communities towards the adoption of better health practices. Therefore, an interest in human psychology, communications, and marketing, along with a robust set of soft skills such as flexibility and communication skills make for an ideal health educator. In order to be a health educator, you must have a master of public health or a master of science degree, preferably from one of the accredited institutions of public health like Boston University, Brown University, University of Colorado etc. The job outlook for this profession is excellent. Bureau of Labour Statistics has predicted a 16% employment growth between 2016 and 2026, with median wage being $53,940.
Other roles for public health professionals include first responders, restaurant inspectors, public health physicians, nutritionists, etc. Public health professionals are also engaged in food and drug administration where they oversee the safety, efficacy, and security of pharmaceutical drugs, of biological products and medical devices. Additionally, they ensure the safety of food supply, cosmetics and any product which emits radiation. Environmental health professionals leverage their extensive knowledge of the environment to minimize risks to the health of communities, bodies of water and air.
Employment Opportunities in Public Health Sector
The variety of functional streams in the Public Health field allows students to explore diverse career options after graduation. Public facing careers span government jobs of health administration and public nursing, while non-profit organizations allow you to focus on a particular population or health concern. Research & educational institutions such as WHO, Yale School of Public Health, UW School of Public Health, etc. provide teaching & research opportunities. In the private sector, opportunities at insurance companies, pharmaceuticals or healthcare institutions provide other avenues. Pharmaceutical or biotech companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Pfizer regularly hire epidemiologists, biostatisticians, public health physicians in their R&D departments. Federal or state governments seek capable candidates for positions in health departments for policy making, communications, clinical research, R&D, etc.
Management consultancy firms take up projects in the public health sector, where they work on strengthening national health systems, health organizations’ efficiency, and introducing new treatments and technologies for specific health conditions. According to Vault’s list of Best Consulting Firms for Health Care Consulting, McKinsey takes the top spot, specializing in areas like Healthcare Actuarial, Healthcare Analytics, and Hospital Strategy and Consulting. Healthcare actuaries work with commercial, medicaid and medicare businesses, building actuarial books to allow companies to optimize their risk-based healthcare businesses. Healthcare analysts, on the other hand, combine strategy, big data and advanced analytics to improve patient outcomes while managing costs. McKinsey is closely followed by Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) Center for Healthcare Value, catering to organizations aiming to provide value-based healthcare by providing better benchmarking to identify best practices and streamlining operations of hospital systems. Deloitte Consulting LLP, Bain & Co., Accenture, and PwC are among some of the other management consultancies featured in the list. With an ever-increasing string of regulations and complex guidelines, hospitals, insurance providers and governments are increasingly looking for specialized consulting in areas of compliance, technology adoption and strategic direction to account for industry developments. Consulting firms such as GE Healthcare Partners (management consulting arm of GE Healthcare) and ClearView Healthcare Partners provide niche consulting services in the healthcare sector. For instance, focus areas for GE Healthcare Partners entail clinical transformation, patient care capacity management, patient safety, etc.
Public Health occupations are projected to be among the fastest growing occupational groups. Therefore, if you wish to make a change in the health sector and contribute to the welfare of the society, now is a golden opportunity to fulfill your aspiration.