Why Study Public Health? 10 Reasons to Earn an MPH

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A person in a lab coat surrounded by test tubes looks into a microscope.

Public health professionals work to safeguard and improve the health and well-being of entire populations, from small communities to entire countries. They do this by promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing and managing chronic illness, and responding to the spread of infectious disease, among other responsibilities.

However, despite its importance, the U.S. public health apparatus is severely underfunded and understaffed.

  • A report from Trust for America’s Health revealed that the U.S. spent $3.8 trillion on health care in 2019, but only 2.6% was directed toward public health.
  • According to an analysis conducted by the Associated Press (AP) and Kaiser Health News (KHN), per capita spending for state public health departments has fallen 16% over the past decade, and for local public health departments by 18%.
  • The same study found that, since the 2008 recession, at least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have vanished.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the dangers of relying on weakened public health systems to combat an unprecedented public health threat. The crisis underscored the nation’s urgent need for public health professionals who can help address an array of challenges, from containing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases to mitigating health care disparities and the adverse effects of climate change. Why study public health? Americans depend on a well-educated, well-trained public health workforce to protect them from all manner of threats. An advanced education, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH), can help individuals gain the skills they need to build a better public health infrastructure post-pandemic.

The Importance of Public Health: COVID-19 and Beyond

The nation’s ongoing struggle to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control serves as a reminder of the importance of public health work. Improved staffing and increased funding for public health are essential to confront challenges that affect large segments of the population.

Public health workers play a critical role in addressing these issues and safeguarding the health of all Americans. ​​Earning an MPH can help equip aspiring public health professionals with the necessary knowledge and skills to protect populations, improve environmental health, and promote greater health equity.

1. Public Health Workers Protect Entire Populations

In contrast to clinical practitioners such as doctors and nurses who treat individual patients, public health professionals focus on protecting and improving the health of the population at large. They accomplish this through various means, including:

  • Making policy recommendations
  • Executing education campaigns
  • Promoting healthy behaviors
  • Curbing the spread of infectious disease
  • Researching disease and injury prevention

Public health workers also help with disease prevention and managing chronic illness. That’s crucial in the U.S., where roughly 60% of the population suffers from at least one chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are the nation’s leading causes of death and disability.

2. Public Health Workers Improve Environmental Health

Addressing environmental health is a significant aspect of public health efforts, particularly the effects of pollution and climate change that impact millions of people worldwide. These issues contribute to a range of adverse conditions, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and malnutrition, while severe weather events triggered by climate change cause widespread injury and death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050. Pollution, meanwhile, contributes to nearly 200,000 premature deaths annually, according to a report from the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution. Public health officials work to mitigate the health impacts of pollution and climate change by advancing policies and programs that reduce harmful environmental exposures, researching climate-related disease occurrences, and developing preparedness plans for extreme weather events.

3. Public Health Workers Help Overcome Health Disparities

A key tenet of public health work is the importance of health equity. Public health officials strive to minimize disparities caused by social determinants of health, such as race, education, and economic stability. These factors have a notable impact on overall wellness and life expectancy and can increase the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Discovering ways to overcome or reduce these disparities is a major area of study for public health professionals.

Social determinants of health also often dictate how certain communities contend with other public health risks, such as climate change and communicable diseases. COVID-19 hit communities of color and other marginalized groups hardest. According to the COVID Tracking Project, the mortality rate for COVID-19 was highest among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations. Resolving the root causes of health inequity is crucial. Public health advocates promote policies designed to reduce poverty — one of the most significant social determinants of health — along with initiatives that improve access to education, housing, and transportation.

What Are the Benefits of Public Health Work?

Public health work is an essential aspect of overall health care. While doctors and nurses focus primarily on treating people after they become sick or injured, public health professionals try to prevent health problems before they occur or manage their severity when they occur. The benefits of public health efforts are numerous. An effective public health apparatus can protect people from infectious diseases and assist them in identifying and averting chronic illnesses. It can also help prevent or mitigate behavioral health problems.

An MPH program can help prepare the next generation of public health workers to reap these benefits.

4. Public Health Workers Prevent the Spread of Infectious Disease

Public health measures — including vaccines and social distancing guidelines — are critical to curbing the spread of infectious disease, whether it’s COVID-19 or influenza. According to a December 2021 report from the Commonwealth Fund, COVID-19 vaccinations prevented an estimated 1.1 million deaths and 10.3 million hospitalizations. Mask-wearing and social distancing, along with contact tracing efforts, prevented countless more deaths.

Government officials relied on the expertise of public health professionals to craft and implement these guidelines. Public health workers were also responsible for coordinating mass vaccination programs and combating misinformation during the pandemic. And whenever the next pandemic arises, they’ll be on the front lines again.

5. Public Health Workers Increase the Use of Preventive Services

Public health initiatives are instrumental in easing access to preventive health care services, like cancer screenings and blood pressure checks. Using preventive services improves the odds of identifying disease earlier, when treatment is more effective, or avoiding disease altogether.

Preventive services help reduce the risk and severity of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and dementia. Collectively, these diseases are the leading drivers of illness, disability, and death in the country, according to the CDC. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s cause nearly 1.5 million deaths each year.

A key focus of public health study and research is the effectiveness of promoting healthy behaviors. Public awareness campaigns informing people about the risks of alcohol and tobacco use, fitness education, and school nutrition programs, for example, can improve a population’s health over time, ultimately reducing a person’s risk of experiencing chronic health conditions later in life. Preventive services can also minimize the harm other health issues cause. For instance, entering the pandemic, a majority of U.S. adults had at least one chronic condition, and roughly 40% had two or more, according to the CDC. This increased their risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and the likelihood of hospitalization and death.

6. Public Health Workers Can Address Behavioral Health

According to the CDC, roughly 40% of adults reported experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues during the pandemic, while drug overdose deaths surged nearly 30% from April 2020 to April 2021, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

The current approach to behavioral health care is primarily focused on one-on-one interventions for people who already have a clinical diagnosis. However, adopting public health strategies to tackle behavioral health holds promise by placing a greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention.

Public health campaigns that are focused on destigmatizing mental health concerns and connecting people to mental health resources are crucial. Officials can also leverage existing infrastructure — such as rural health clinics, primary care offices, and schools — to expand mental health screenings and education.

A public health approach to behavioral health could increase overall resiliency among populations and reduce the number of people who develop behavioral health issues. This in turn could lead to improvements in physical health as well: Mental health struggles are linked with other health issues, including an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes or cancer.

The Importance of Leadership in Public Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on public health leaders as well. According to a joint investigation by the AP and KHN, 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states left the job from April to December 2020.

This talent exodus creates potential opportunities for future public health leaders and underscores the importance of leadership in public health systems. Strong leadership is essential for the U.S. to confront the many challenges ahead, including future pandemics, the dangers of climate change, and the growing burden of chronic disease. In addition to their technical expertise, public health leaders should possess certain soft skills to meet these challenges, including:

  • Communication — Public health leaders need to translate scientifically complex information into easily understood language, not only for the public but also for government officials who must make informed decisions. Effective communication is also critical to persuade people to follow public health guidelines.
  • Problem-solving — In the absence of sufficient funding, public health leaders need to be able to think creatively and develop workable solutions to complex challenges, leveraging available resources in the most efficient way possible — and knowing when to demand more resources.
  • Collaboration — Relationship-building is a vital aspect of a public health leader’s job. They need to foster partnerships with a range of stakeholders, including community organizations, government agencies, businesses, the health care system, and especially the public.

Why study public health? An MPH can help future public health leaders develop these and other skills, opening the door to numerous career opportunities.

7. A Pathway to Leadership

Earning an MPH demonstrates a level of commitment and expertise in public health that is often essential for a leadership role. An MPH program provides students with comprehensive knowledge of key concepts, including epidemiology, biostatistics, and health equity, and offers field experience in the form of a hands-on practicum. It also helps students fine-tune the soft skills essential for leaders, such as communication and team building.

An MPH is generally required for a number of public health roles, including epidemiologist and medical and health services manager roles. It’s also typically a prerequisite for advancement.

8. Increased Interest in Public Health

Interest in public health as an education and career path rose significantly during the pandemic. According to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), applications to MPH programs increased 20% in 2020, with some programs experiencing even more substantial jumps in enrollment. That trend continued into 2021, as the number of applicants using ASPPH’s application service was 40% higher in March 2021 than in the year prior.

This is a welcome turnaround for a field that saw a decrease in applications the year before the pandemic and that has undergone funding cuts, early retirements, and staff departures for years. Rebuilding the nation’s public health infrastructure will require refilling its ranks with well-educated workers. Earning an MPH can help students stand out in a competitive job market, particularly for those who aspire to a leadership role in public health.

9. A Versatile Degree

A degree in public health, particularly an MPH, presents numerous career opportunities. Graduates can pursue a variety of roles based on their area of interest, whether they prefer to work in a lab or directly with the public. MPH graduates can qualify for the following public health roles:

  • Epidemiologists investigate the causes of disease and injury and search for patterns. They use research, education, and policy to reduce the risk and incidence of negative health outcomes.
  • Environmental scientists and specialists seek to protect the environment and shield people from environmental hazards. Their responsibilities may include cleaning up polluted areas, making policy recommendations, or working with companies to reduce waste and limit the use of harmful materials.
  • Medical and health services managers, sometimes referred to as health care executives or health care administrators, oversee various facets of a health care operation, including staffing and compliance. They may manage an entire facility, department, or medical practice.
  • Health education specialists teach people about healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices and develop strategies to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities.
  • Community health workers educate people about the importance of health care services, like cancer screenings, and advocate for community members’ medical needs with providers and social service organizations.

Due to the essential nature of their jobs, public health professionals work in a wide range of industries and settings, including government, academia, and the private sector.

10. Public Health Job Outlook

Another reason to study public health? The job market is very favorable. Job opportunities for several public health professions are expected to grow significantly over the next several years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS has projected substantial employment growth for the following roles between 2020 and 2030:

  • Epidemiologists — Employment opportunities are projected to grow 30%, adding more than 2,000 new jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased demand for epidemiologists to research, identify, and minimize the impact of infectious diseases.
  • Medical and health services managers — The BLS projects that nearly 140,000 jobs will be added by 2030, a 32% increase. By comparison, the average employment growth projected for all occupations is only 8%. Demand for medical and health services managers will be partly driven by increased demand for health care services, particularly among the aging baby-boom population.
  • Health education specialists and community health workers — Overall employment growth for these roles is projected at 17% from 2020 to 2030, adding more than 21,000 jobs. A heightened emphasis on promoting healthy behaviors will drive much of this growth.

Salaries for different public health professions vary. The median annual wage for health education specialists was $56,500 in May 2020, according to the BLS, while epidemiologists and medical and health services managers had median annual salaries of $74,560 and $104,280, respectively.

Certain factors can influence how much a public health professional earns, including experience level and location. Education is also a critical factor. According to the BLS, on average, individuals with a master’s degree earn roughly $13,000 more annually than those with only a bachelor’s.

Become a Public Health Leader

An effective public health system is essential to overcoming the population health challenges of our time, whether it’s a pandemic or health inequities stemming from social determinants of health. As the country emerges from the pandemic, public health leaders will play an essential role in rebuilding the nation’s public health infrastructure and preparing it for the challenges that lie ahead. If you’re interested in a career in public health, Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program will provide you with an opportunity to explore the many facets of the field and discover which career path is right for you.

The program curriculum can help you develop the skills and expertise necessary to advance your career and take on a leadership role. Learn more about how the program can help you achieve your professional goals.

Recommended Readings

What Are Determinants of Health? Behavioral, Environmental, and Social Factors of Public Health

Climate Change and Human Health: Statistics, Risks, and Resources

What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?

Sources:

American Society for Public Administration, “Spend a Dollar, Save More Than a Dollar — Public Health”

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Diseases in America

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Climate and Health ​​

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Critical Need for a Population Health Approach: Addressing the Nation’s Behavioral Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Leading Causes of Death

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24-30, 2020”

The Commonwealth Fund, “The U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program at One Year: How Many Deaths and Hospitalizations Were Averted?”

The Commonwealth Fund, “U.S. Health Care from a Global Perspective, 2019: Higher Spending, Worse Outcomes?”

The COVID Tracking Project, The COVID Racial Data Tracker

Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, “Pollution and Health Metrics: Global, Regional and Country Analysis”

Harvard Business Review, “5 Skills Public Health Officials Need to Combat the Next Pandemic”

Health Affairs, “Five Urgent Public Health Policies to Combat the Mental Health Effects of COVID-19”

Journal of AHIMA, “Public Health Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

Kaiser Health News, “Pandemic Backlash Jeopardizes Public Health Powers, Leaders”

Kaiser Health News, “Public Health Programs See Surge in Students Amid Pandemic”

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers

The Nation’s Health, “Interest in Public Health Degrees Jumps in Wake of Pandemic: Applications Rise”

Trust for America’s Health, “The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System: Trends, Risks, and Recommendations, 2021”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Scientists and Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Learn More, Earn More: Education Leads to Higher Wages, Lower Unemployment

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

World Health Organization, Climate Change and Health