What is Public Health?

June 2, 2023

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The tragedy of a global pandemic massively increased interest in public health. As indicated by Google Search Trends data, queries for “public health” spiked to the highest recorded levels in March 2020, just as pandemic-related lockdowns began and public health officials were placed center stage on TV screens worldwide. But what is public health? And what type of role does a public health worker fill?

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Public health practitioners and public health organizations (such as the World Health Organization, or WHO), actively encourage nonmedical solutions to prevent disease spread. The role of public health is distinctly broad. Organizations such as WHO and public health officials design and support such policies at a national level, or within larger organizations or populations.

For example, handwashing, mask-wearing, and the use of hand sanitizer were disease-mitigation strategies quickly recommended by public health officials worldwide to help stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside of this historic event, public health officials also regularly promote the use of vaccines, including annual flu shots.

Practitioners have long played pivotal roles in helping to establish medically sound and innovatively constructed health policies designed to prevent the spread of disease across large populations. Prior to this global pandemic, few people in the US could likely name a public health official. Now, however, doctors such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have moved from relative obscurity into the category of “household names.” These individuals will likely sit prominently in future history books, which may indeed help sustain interest in public health as a career.

Where Do Public Health Professionals Work?

The scope of public health often means that those employed in such positions work with governments and large organizations where policy-setting initiatives impact large groups of people. Public health workers may find employment in hospitals, for example, where they could be tasked with establishing policies that reduce or eliminate cross-infection between staff and patients.

Public health workers are not likely to work in smaller clinics or organizations due to the broad reach of the role. And although they are trained in medical sciences, public health workers are often policy-focused administrators; they do not work directly with individual patients to diagnose and treat diseases.

What Jobs Can You Get With a Public Health Degree?

There’s no limit to what you can do with a public health degree! Those who work in public health may hold an advanced degree in almost any concentration within medicine. Many high-profile public health professionals began in areas such as epidemiology or medical research, and later moved into a public health position after years of experience within their concentration. However, one might also obtain a degree in public health, or a degree in community medicine (which is related to public health but more focused on distinct groups).

Public health workers can be employed in positions that include:

  • Clinical Trials Coordinator
  • Community Health Worker
  • Disease Program Evaluator
  • Health Program Consultant
  • Healthcare Program Administrator
  • Population Health Specialist
  • Professor of Public Health
  • Project and Policy Analyst

Most roles require a multi-disciplinary understanding of medicine, which public health degree programs typically cover within the curriculum of study.

Want to know more? Read our blog on what you can do with a public health degree.

What is the Average Salary for Public Health Workers?

Because public health workers take on roles across a variety of spectrums, compensation can vary a bit more compared to other medical professions.

According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for a public health worker is just over $67,000 per year, while the top two percent of public health jobs pay between $110,000 and $120,000 per year. Glassdoor places this figure quite a bit lower, as it reports a national average base pay at under $57,000 per year.

Interested in Public Health? Consider a Specialized Community Medicine Degree

If you’re exploring a degree or career in public health, you may want to add community medicine to your research. The two fields are closely related, but differ in scope.

While public health is a broad, policy-focused career organized around safe health practices, community medicine looks through a narrow population lens. Where public health workers might be concerned with evaluating health policies for an entire city or organization, community medicine zeroes in on distinct and often underrepresented groups, such as immigrants, minorities, or patients who suffer from specific chronic illnesses.

The large goal for community medicine officials is to help mitigate the use of medical facilities through best practices within select communities. For example, this could mean advocating for and helping to organize methods to reduce opioid addiction in affiliated communities or reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in a community through education and improved contraception usage. These are all concerns that fall within the realm of public health, as well. However, community medicine quite often works more intimately with groups to achieve identified goals.

KGI’s Master of Science in Community Medicine program is a great starting point for jobs in both community medicine and public health. Earn your MSCM degree in just two years. This fully online program gives you the opportunity to learn from experts through the view of a high-need community of your choice. Once completed, you can immediately work in community medicine jobs, or go on to pursue a doctorate in any other medical field.

Want to know more about what you can do with a degree in public health and the diverse careers in science and healthcare? Download our guide, There’s More to Medicine Than Meets the Eye: Your Guide to Careers in Healthcare and Applied Life Science

In our guide, you’ll learn all about the degrees you need to get you to your dream job. You’ll also discover how the different industries within STEM, healthcare, and the life sciences interact with and impact each other. 

Don’t miss out on this valuable resource! 


You can also request more information or apply to KGI today!


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