What makes a population healthy? It’s common knowledge that eating nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, and managing stress promote individuals’ health. But it’s also no surprise that access to healthy living conditions is not distributed equally across the U.S. That’s why public health leaders look beyond individual metrics to study the social and structural determinants of population health.
The social determinants of health (SDOH) constitute a public health framework that conceptualizes population health and well-being as the result of not only individual choices but larger social factors,
including consistent access to:
- Secure housing
- Nutritious foods
- Unpolluted environments
- Safe workplaces
- Reliable transportation
- Adequate education
- Cohesive communities
- Responsive social services
- Respectful social spaces free from discrimination
Public health experts, including Dr. Michael Reece, interim department chair and assistant professor of instruction in Ohio University’s Department of Social and Public Health, believe that leaders who adopt a systems-oriented approach to public health may be better equipped to create lasting change, making communities safer and healthier in the short and long term.
Reece has advice for students who are interested in current opportunities in public health.
Opportunity 1. Embrace a “Health in All Policies” Philosophy
The idea that public health graduates can find meaningful work only in the health field is a myth. On the contrary, public health leaders are needed in the public and private sectors to address a wide array of issues, such as poverty, education, environment, housing, and community cohesion.
“One of the key principles we teach in our MPH [Master of Public Health] program is a philosophy known as ‘health in all policies,’” Reece explains. The “health in all policies” approach encourages leaders in every sector — from education to government, from nonprofits to technology — to consider how social structures affect population health.
The key for public health graduates is seeing the opportunity for improved health outcomes by way of structural change. “Transportation policies and systems, for example, have a major influence on the health of a community,” Reece says. “Funding for parks, sidewalks, [and] bike paths is dependent on policies and systems that recognize the critical roles they play in areas ranging from physical activity to community cohesion.”
As a crucial social determinant of health, transportation affects access to health services, such as doctor’s appointments and emergency services, as well as basic necessities like grocery stores. Graduates with public health degrees are well suited to working alongside policy analysts, public officials, and advocates to propose changes that improve health in the community.
“Students who are immersed in training based on this philosophy often find themselves exploring roles inside organizations that are not traditionally considered as ‘public health,’ like parks and recreation departments, schools, and city planning units.”
Opportunity 2. Cultivate a Broad Public Health Skill Set
Developing a solid foundation of public health knowledge is both essential for professionals in the field and a great opportunity to prepare for many different kinds of public health work.
“Some of the challenges we face in public health are related to our need to better integrate public health across the systems that drive our societies in ways that better respond to the social determinants of health,” Reece says. “And this presents opportunities for creative thinkers who have diverse life experiences to have a major influence on how communities function.”
What does it mean to cultivate a broad public health skill set? To start, public health students become proficient in the basic public health sciences: epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, health policy, and the social and behavioral sciences.
While these facets have their own methodologies, the broad skills that public health students acquire through their training enable them to:
- Synthesize scientific literature and translate it into digestible information for members of the community
- Design, implement, and evaluate effective health promotion programs
- Prepare proposals for funding, manage organizations, and work effectively with policymakers
- Effectively engage community members in important public health work
Opportunity 3. Stand for Health Equity and Justice
Equipping public health students with a “health in all policies” philosophy empowers public health graduates to help to address systemic injustice in our communities, including systemic racism, ableism, classism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.
For example, MPH graduates can become agents of change in disenfranchised communities by shedding light on public health issues that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, such as unsafe and inadequate housing, environmental pollution, and barriers to accessing health care and social services.
As Reece describes: “The range of career options [for MPH graduates] is incredibly diverse and limitless.”
Many MPH graduates choose to pursue opportunities in traditional settings, such as local and state health departments, community organizations, and federal health agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, among many others.
Today’s public health graduates also play important roles in:
- International organizations (such as the World Health Organization)
- State and local governments
- City and county agencies (including departments of parks and recreation)
- Health care organizations (such as hospitals and insurance companies)
- Corporations in business and technology sectors that develop health-related products and services
- Philanthropic entities
Public Health Leadership Facilitates Change
There are so many ways that formal education in public health can lead to professional opportunities that make a real-world impact on population health and well-being. A step toward building this knowledge is to enroll in an advanced degree program.
Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program is designed to provide flexibility for working professionals, with a curriculum that can help you develop the skills and expertise necessary to advance your career and take on a leadership role. With a vibrant online learning community, online students are able to connect with peers who will serve as a valuable component of their professional networks for years to come. Learn more about how Ohio University’s MPH program can help you achieve your professional goals.
How the U.S. Public Health System Works: From Policy to Action
What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?
Why Study Public Health? 10 Reasons to Earn an MPH
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Diseases in America
Health Affairs, “Health Care in 2021: Five Trends to Watch”
Healthy People 2030, Social Determinants of Health
Managed Healthcare Executive, “5 Population Health Trends to Watch”
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers