Public Health vs. Medicine: Examining the Differences

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A group of health care professionals and administrators standing and smiling.

Health care is a massive professional field with many roles and positions available. Whether they are working with patients or researching innovative methods to reduce the spread of disease, motivated health care workers serve as integral contributors to society. More importantly, their efforts can potentially equip communities with the knowledge they need to make well-informed choices about their health and well-being. Not only can this lead to healthier people, but it can also help to reduce health care costs.

For those interested in joining this field, it can be a difficult task to learn about its various degrees and certifications. Different careers paths can have varying education tracks and day-to-day responsibilities. When considering public health vs. medicine careers, it is important to determine which path is best suited for you prior to pursuing a degree such as a Master of Public Health. Examining the potential job opportunities and outcomes for those who earn different degrees can simplify this decision-making process.

Public Health vs. Medicine: Public Health Industry

When it comes to public health vs. medicine careers, it can be helpful to learn about each industry before deciding which would be a good fit..

Public health work is a crucial component of building and maintaining healthy communities. Through tactics like educational program implementation, policy advocacy, and research, public health workers can help bring about equity in a community’s overall health and in the accessibility and quality of its health care. They can also take a proactive approach to health, providing the public with essential information on ongoing and potential public health crises. This aspect of the work can help slow the spread of misinformation and ultimately enable the public to work through crises in an optimal manner.

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

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 who 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. These interventions can include education, advocating for health-specific laws, and clinical research. Examples of occupations in public health include certain nonprofit managers, community health coordinators, epidemiologists, and public policymakers.

General Courses Offered

Master of Public Health program courses are designed to expose students to the influences that can shape the health of communities, 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 chronic disease epidemiology can 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 interventions, graduates are well-suited to make an immediate impact in a health-related field. Quantitative background knowledge is necessary to effectively understand and implement health research and reform. Those with a public health degree can better understand the issues that lead to health disparities and the steps they can take to serve these communities.

Career Opportunities

In public health vs. medicine comparison, there tends to be a wider range of careers in public health. Areas of concentration include biostatistics and informatics, community health, emergency management, epidemiology, and public policy and administration.

As one example, epidemiologists study the spread of diseases in populations. Through rigorous research, educational programs, and policy implementation, these professionals seek to keep our communities safe from disease 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 had a median annual salary of $74,560 as of 2020. Jobs in epidemiology are expected to grow at a rate of 30% from 2020 to 2030. This is substantially faster than the average 8% job growth the BLS projects for all professions.

Public Health vs. Medicine: Medicine and Nursing Industry

Another way of evaluating public health vs. medicine careers is to consider the trends affecting both industries. Currently, there are three emergent trends impacting 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. According to Rural Health Information Hub, there are 46 million adults aged 65 and over living in the United States; by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be in this demographic. This will create a massive demand for skilled nurses.

Furthermore, Nasdaq reports 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 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. Classes like Assessment and Intervention for Families help nurses provide excellent family care. Specialized concentrations can also prepare nurses for specific clinical roles, including adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner, nurse educator, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, and family nurse practitioner.

Skills Gained from the Degree

An MSN covers the skills necessary to treat patients as a registered nurse (RN). Featuring real-world clinical experience and a breadth of theoretical and practical knowledge, this degree can prepare 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 have many different care responsibilities and can work in any of a variety of environments. They take patient histories, create care plans, diagnose health issues, conduct research, perform physical exams, and monitor patient improvement. According to the BLS, RNs had a median annual salary of $75,330 as of 2020. The number of jobs in the field is projected to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than average.

Alternatively, advanced practice nurses (APRNs) had a median annual salary of $117,670 as of 2020, according to the BLS. The need for skilled nurses is increasing in the wake of the aging population. The BLS projects APRN employment will grow 45% from 2020 to 2030, which is significantly faster than the average 8% growth rate the BLS projects for all jobs.

Comparing the Degrees: Which Is Right for Me?

Looking closely at the public health vs. medicine fields, it’s clear that both focus on keeping individuals and groups healthy. Each field provides opportunities to improve communities from the inside, yet the methods for doing so are different for each. 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 of Science in Nursing. Explore the curricula and figure out which program is right for you.

Recommended Readings

How the U.S. Public Health System Works: From Policy to Action

Examining the Impact of the Nursing Shortage on Patient Care

What Is the Role of a Public Health Nurse?


American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

American Public Health Association, Disparities in the US

American Public Health Association, Generation Public Health

American Public Health Association, What Is Public Health?

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

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

Rural Health Information Hub, Demographic Changes and Aging Population

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses