Public Health vs. Medicine: What’s the Difference?

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Diverse public health workers pose together in a group in scrubs and business attire.

Health care is a huge professional field, and there are many roles and positions available. Whether it’s working with patients or researching innovative methods to reduce the spread of disease, motivated health care workers serve as integral contributors to society. For those interested in joining this field, it can be a lofty task to understand its various degrees and certifications. Further, different careers in health care can have dramatically different day-to-day responsibilities, so it is important to determine which role would be best suited for you. Examining the industry and outcomes of different degrees can simplify this decision-making process.

Public Health vs. Medicine: Public Health

Public health encompasses many varied career paths that depend on different interests and skills. The educational curriculum provides students with an exciting blend of science and health care studies. Graduates may find employment opportunities at health agencies, hospitals and integrated health care systems, and in private business and industry.

Public Health Industry

According to the American Public Health Association, income, race, and geographic location can make up to a 15-year difference in the expected lifespan of citizens in the U.S. For example, in Washington, D.C., people in neighborhoods that are only 12 miles apart have a difference of nine years in their life expectancy.

“Public health” refers to the community of professionals that promote healthy lifestyles and work to reduce disease and injury. Where those in nursing work individually with patients, public health professionals intervene on a large scale to increase community health. This intervention can include education, advocating for health-specific laws, and clinical research. Examples of occupations in public health include nutritionists, first responders such as emergency medical technicians, epidemiologists, and public policymakers. A Master of Public Health (MPH) degree is a useful platform to build a career in public health.

General Courses Offered

Courses in a Master of Public Health program are designed to expose students to the influences that can shape our health care system, such as demographics, politics, and environmental factors. This can include social, behavioral, environmental, and cultural elements.

For instance, courses such as Epidemiology in Public Health introduce foundational concepts in the spread of diseases, case study methods, and research in real-world health care settings. Health Disparities, another course, takes a nuanced approach to examining how health outcomes can be affected by rural clinical settings. Other topics such as environmental health, grant writing, and global health enable students to gain a well-rounded understanding of public health topics and how these topics will affect their practice as public health professionals.

Skills Gained from the Degree

Public health degree holders learn the skills necessary to serve their communities. By understanding the methods used to provide top-tier health intervention, graduates are well-suited to make an immediate impact in a healthcare-related field. Quantitative background knowledge is necessary to effectively understand and implement medical research and reform. Those with a public health degree understand the causes that lead to health care disparities and the steps they can take to serve these communities.

Career Opportunities

There are many public health careers available to graduates. Areas of concentration include biostatistics and informatics, community health, emergency management, epidemiology, and public policy and administration, to name a few.

As one example, epidemiologists study the spread of diseases in populations. Through rigorous medical research, education programs, and policy implementation, these professionals seek to keep our communities safe and healthy. Epidemiologists work in laboratories, hospitals, clinics, and government agencies. Their duties typically include planning studies, collecting data, managing health programs, and communicating policy recommendations to other professionals.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that epidemiologists earned a median salary of $69,660 in 2018. Epidemiology careers are expected to grow at a rate of 9% from 2016 to 2026, which is as fast as the national average.

Public Health vs. Medicine: Master of Science in Nursing

Nursing Industry

Nasdaq reports three emergent trends in the nursing industry: increasing demand, a shift toward low-cost alternatives to patient care, and consolidation. First, demographic trends in the U.S. have put a strain on care availability. Between 2010 and 2030, the number of seniors 65 years and older is expected to double, which will create a massive demand for skilled nurses. Next, patients have resisted increasing health care costs by choosing lower-cost clinical settings, such as skilled nursing facilities. These facilities can serve a variety of needs without the stringent staffing requirements associated with other health care settings. They are fragmented and often managed by regional providers, so consolidation is expected.

General Courses Offered

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an excellent degree to pursue for students who wish to work in health care as nurses. Core courses teach students essential nursing theory and practice through a wealth of case studies.

Classes such as Theoretical Basis of Practice explore the theoretical underpinnings of nursing practice. Advanced Pharmacology focuses on clinical decision-making with regard to medication. Further, classes like Assessment and Intervention for Families help nurses provide excellent family care. Concentrations can also prepare nurses for specific clinical settings, such as adult-gerontology acute care, psychiatric mental health, nurse educator, and family nurse.

Skills Gained from the Degree

An MSN covers the skills necessary to treat patients as a registered nurse. Featuring real-world clinical experience and a breadth of theoretical and practical knowledge, this degree enables students to meet the challenges presented in the nursing industry. Different patients will have a variety of different needs, and an MSN provides graduates with a wealth of knowledge and methods to provide treatment. They will discover how the care they provide fits into a system of health care delivery.

Career Opportunities

Nurses hold many different patient care responsibilities. For instance, nurses take patient histories, create care plans, diagnose health issues, conduct research, perform physical exams, and monitor patient improvement. Advanced practice nurses earned a median salary of $113,930 in 2018, according to the BLS. Due to demographic trends, the need for skilled nurses (APRNs) is increasing in the wake of an aging population. Career growth for APRNs from 2016 to 2026 is expected to reach 31%, which is much faster than the national average for all jobs.

Comparing the Degrees: Which Is Right for Me?

Public health and medicine both focus on keeping individuals and groups healthy. Both fields provide opportunities to improve our communities from the inside, yet methods to reach this goal are varied. Whether you want to conduct large-scale research into the causes of disease or work individually with patients, there are degree programs available to help you meet your career goals. Ohio University offers an online Master of Public Health as well as an online Master in Nursing. Visit these web pages and explore whether these degree programs could be the right choice for you.

Recommended Reading:

Choosing Your Path: Why Be a Nurse Practitioner?

MSN vs. FNP: Opportunities in Advanced Nursing Practice

What Kind of Nurse Should I Be?


APHA, “What is Public Health?”

Deloitte, “2019 US and Global Health Care Industry Outlook”

NASDAQ, “Nursing Industry Outlook Bright on Low-Cost Care & Demography”

Ohio University, Online Masters of Public Health

Ohio University, Online Masters of Science in Nursing, “Public Health Careers – Explore Your Options”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners