The COVID-19 pandemic placed the field of public health in the spotlight like never before. It also highlighted critical opportunities to improve public health, not only in response to pandemics but going forward in general.
As a 2021 report in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance noted, the pandemic:
- Revealed a need to strengthen the governance and resilience of our health systems
- Accentuated the importance of collaboration and coordination among countries to tackle health challenges
- Underscored a need to improve preparedness for global health issues
- Reiterated a need to increase investment in technology and research to address threats to public health
Even prior to the pandemic, issues that influenced public health had long been something that public health professionals worked to address. Factors such as where people live, their race, their educational level, the amount of money they earn, and the extent of their access to health care can make a 15-year difference in the length of their lives, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).
With so many factors affecting public health, it’s no surprise that public health workers can be found in a variety of settings. Where do public health workers work? The answer to that question can help individuals who may be considering careers in public health learn more about the field. Particularly for individuals who may be considering enrolling in an online Master of Public Health degree program, exploring public health work settings can help identify the specific public health career path that aligns with their skills and preferences.
What Does Public Health Work Entail?
Before discussing specific examples of where people in public health can work, it’s important to form a foundational understanding of public health work itself and what it encompasses. The objective of the field of public health is to protect and promote the health of people and their communities, according to the APHA. Public health professionals accomplish this in a variety of ways, including everything from tracking the outbreak of diseases, to implementing vaccination programs, to educating the public on the health effects of smoking.
In defining public health, it’s also important to understand the differences between the objective of health care and the objective of public health. While health care providers treat patients who have illnesses or injuries, public health professionals focus their efforts on preventing illness or injury. Emphasizing behaviors that are healthy and promoting wellness are some of the primary responsibilities of working in public health. Public health professionals also work to address structural and systemic issues (for example, racism, gender discrimination, or poverty) that contribute to health inequalities.
The 10 Essential Public Health Services
To further outline the scope of public health work, the APHA explains that the 10 essential public health services include:
- Monitoring and assessing population health
- Addressing, diagnosing, and investigating hazards to health and their causes
- Educating and informing the public about health matters
- Supporting, mobilizing, and strengthening public health in communities and through partnerships
- Developing, advocating for, and implementing laws, plans, and policies regarding public health
- Implementing regulatory and legal actions in support of public health
- Enabling equitable access to health care
- Forming a skilled and diverse public health workforce
- Improving public health through evaluating public health, conducting research activities, and implementing quality improvement processes
- Creating and maintaining a strong public health infrastructure
Careers in Public Health
The extensive variety of public health work environments and careers enables individuals to select a specialty that aligns with their goals, interests, and expertise. For example, the APHA notes individuals can have public health careers in:
- Community Health
The COVID-19 Pandemic Spurred Increased Interest in Working in Public Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired individuals to work in public health. Applications to graduate public health programs grew by 20% in the 2020-2021 academic year, according to a 2020 report by Kaiser Health News. Some students have been drawn to the field because of the disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on minority ethnic groups. Others have been inspired by the work of the public health officials they have seen in the media throughout the pandemic.
The renewed interest in working in public health is critical to addressing the continuing need for professionals in the field. A 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found the field of public health will be facing significant turnover in the coming years. Factors such as an aging workforce and workers exiting the field due to the intense workloads associated with the pandemic are driving that turnover. As a result, succession planning, recruitment, and retention will be critical to developing the workforce necessary to adequately protect public health.
Working in Community Public Health
For people who seek a public health workplace setting on the frontline, working in community public health can be a rewarding option. As the World Health Organization (WHO) explains, community health workers typically live in the communities in which they provide services, and they are crucial to ensuring vulnerable populations in those communities obtain the health services they need.
Because they live in the communities they serve, individuals who work in community public health have insight into meeting a population’s health needs in a manner that is culturally astute and appropriate. They also are in a position to reduce inequities in health status and improve the performance of health systems.
Working in community health involves providing a variety of services. The WHO groups those services into the following categories.
- Delivering clinical services: Examples of these services include administering rapid tests for HIV; providing vaccinations; dispensing contraceptives; and providing psychotherapy and counseling to address neurological, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.
- Assisting with access to health services: This includes responsibilities such as ensuring individuals have a way to get to medical appointments, assisting individuals to obtain health insurance, or referring individuals to health care providers.
- Educating communities about health: Examples include educating individuals about HIV and behaviors to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV, providing family planning information, and educating individuals about common chronic diseases.
- Collecting and analyzing data: Community health professionals gather and study data to identify and report on disease outbreaks, for example, or detect situations in which stocks of medicine in a community are running low.
- Strengthening relationships between health care providers and communities: Examples include improving provider responsiveness to patients’ needs by serving as mediators with providers and acting as patient advocates.
- Providing psychosocial support: Examples of psychosocial support including creating support groups for patients with similar health challenges, sending reminders to individuals about their treatment regimens and medication schedules, and offering support to reduce maternal depression.
Job Prospects for Community Public Health
There will be a significant demand for community health workers in the coming years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Specifically, the BLS has projected a 21% increase in community health positions between 2020 and 2030, which is much larger than the 8% growth the BLS has projected for all occupations during that time frame.
Working for Nonprofit Public Health Organizations
Individuals looking for workplaces in public health that offer a wide variety of services can consider working for nonprofit public health organizations. According to Candid (the information service focused on nonprofit organizations created through the merger of GuideStar and Foundation Center):
- Nearly 43,000 nonprofits in the U.S. specialize in disease and disease research, addiction and substance abuse, or mental health and crisis services.
- Nearly 60,000 nonprofits in the U.S. operate health care facilities and programs or focus on medical disciplines and specialty research.
At the worldwide level, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) summarizes nonprofit global health organizations in the following categories.
- International organizations — such as the WHO, which provides leadership on global health issues and is influential in shaping the agenda for health research, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which finances efforts to combat disease across the world
- Scientific organizations — such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which develops vaccines to contain infectious diseases around the world, and the Planetary Health Alliance, which supports applied research on the effects of environmental changes
- Advocacy and policy organizations — such as the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, which promotes coordinated research on chronic diseases, and the Global Health Technologies Coalition, which promotes awareness of technologies that can save lives in the developing world
- Foundations — such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports public health initiatives around the world, and the United Nations Foundation, which works to improve children’s health and address the effects of climate change
Individuals with public health experts can work for nonprofits in positions such as:
- Policy researcher and analyst — at nonprofits such as the Trust for America’s Health, a public health policy, advocacy, and research nonprofit
- Consultant or trainer — at nonprofits such as the Public Health Foundation, an organization that offers performance improvement services to health departments and community stakeholders
- Health promoter — at nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders, which conducts community engagement and health promotion activities around the world
- Epidemiologist — at nonprofits such as Medical Care Development, Inc., a global nonprofit that works to strengthen public health programs around the world
Job Prospects for Public Health Careers at Nonprofits
Nonprofits are experiencing challenges in maintaining their staffing levels, so individuals who have an interest in working for a nonprofit may find a healthy demand for their services and expertise. In late 2021, the National Council of Nonprofits reported the nonprofit organizations it surveyed were facing significant difficulty filling vacancies and retaining staff. Specifically, 26% of surveyed nonprofits reported between 20% and 29% of their positions were vacant.
Working at the Intersection of Public Health and Health Care
The fields of public health and health care are interrelated, so it follows that the work environments for public health professionals also include health care providers. For example, hospitals and outpatient care centers hire significant numbers of health experts. According to the BLS:
- Hospitals employ 16% of epidemiologists.
- Hospitals or outpatient care centers employ 17% of community health workers.
- Hospitals or outpatient care centers employ 28% of all health education specialists.
There has always been overlapping in the services that public health organizations offer and those that health care providers offer (for example, administering vaccinations or screening for certain diseases). However, some health policy experts have been advocating for even greater integration of public health with health care, and health care providers already have begun to:
- Hire community health workers to provide services such as care coordination for people with chronic health conditions
- Coordinate with public health officials who have expertise on population health to develop health profiles of communities
Likewise, public health entities have begun to:
- Exchange health data with primary care providers to improve approaches to diagnosis and treatment
- Collaborate with primary care providers to increase vaccination rates
Job Prospects for Public Health Careers at Health Care Providers
The BLS has projected epidemiologist positions will grow 30% between 2020 and 2030, due in large part to an expected increase in hospitals’ hiring of epidemiologists to improve their infection control programs. In addition, a 2022 report in Patient Engagement HIT noted more health care organizations are considering hiring non-clinician personnel such as community health workers to direct patients to social services that can strengthen their overall health and quality of life.
If the overall integration of public health and health care services continues to increase, the prospects for public health careers at health care providers could be bright.
Working Where Public Health and Education Converge
Education is a critical component of promoting public health, so it’s no surprise that many individuals choose to work in careers that combine public health and education. As the BLS explains, working as a health education specialist enables individuals to use their public health expertise to promote wellness and instruct people on behaviors that support wellness. Health education specialists do that through efforts such as:
- Creating educational events and programs that inform people about specific topics in health, such as how to manage common health conditions
- Assisting people in finding information regarding their health conditions
- Offering public health training to health care providers and community health workers
- Studying public health data to identify the educational programs a community needs
- Developing workplace wellness programs
According to the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, work settings for public health professionals who specialize in health education can include:
- Schools and universities
- Government agencies
- Private businesses
- Nonprofit organizations
Job Prospects for Public Health Careers in Education
The BLS has projected a 17% increase in health education specialist positions between 2020 and 2030. Two main factors that are expected to fuel the job demand in public health education include a renewed effort to promote health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the desire by health care organizations to strengthen their quality of care and improve health outcomes while decreasing costs.
Working in Government and Public Health
The connection between government and public health became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, and government agencies are one of the most common settings where public health professionals work.
In the U.S., dozens of federal agencies and almost 3,000 territorial, state, tribal, and local health departments form the national public health system, according to a 2022 report by the Commonwealth Fund. Historically, these agencies have suffered from underfunding, but the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, provided them with increased resources. Specifically, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported the American Rescue Plan Act included $7.6 billion for the development of the public health workforce.
Working for a government public health agency means different things depending on the specific agency. For example:
- At the federal level, the CDC has positions such as epidemiologist, public health advisor, public health policy staff, and data scientist.
- At the state level, the California Department of Public Health has positions such as health education consultant, epidemiologist, public health medical administrator, and environmental scientist.
- Local government agencies may have positions such as epidemiologist, program coordinator, program manager, and strategy and planning supervisor.
Working for the government brings a host of advantages. For example, according to the employment website Indeed, individuals who work for a government agency generally can enjoy:
- A pension or retirement package
- Good health insurance coverage
- Job stability
- Forgiveness of student loans for working in certain public sector jobs
- The opportunity to work with like-minded colleagues who are dedicated to public service
- Work that enables people to make a difference and improve the lives of others
- Professional development opportunities
On the other hand, Indeed notes those who work for a government agency can face challenges such as:
- Limited job growth opportunities
- Relatively lower compensation compared to the private sector
- Issues associated with working in a bureaucracy
- Lengthy hiring processes
- Changes in leadership associated with elections
Job Prospects for Public Health Careers at Government Agencies
With an increase in funding from the American Rescue Plan, government public health agencies have new resources with which to expand their staffing levels. This, combined with opportunities due to turnover rates in public health jobs, could create openings for individuals with public health expertise to start their careers by working at a government public health agency.
Finding a Calling in Public Health
No matter where public health professionals work, they have the opportunity to make valuable contributions to society. Whether working directly with citizens through community health programs or conducting research at the highest levels with the CDC, professionals in public health have the opportunity to apply their skills and expertise to make lasting improvements in our population’s health.
Individuals who are interested in working in public health would do well to explore the Ohio University online Master of Public Health program to learn how it can help them achieve their career goals.
Offering expertise on the social, cultural, environmental, and behavioral determinants of health — as well as a focus on assessing, designing, implementing, and evaluating public health interventions — the program can be a key stepping-stone toward a rewarding career in public health.
Take the first step toward your public health career today.
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “Workplace Perceptions and Experiences Related to COVID-19 Response Efforts Among Public Health Workers — Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey, United States, September 2021–January 2022”