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What is public health? How to work in the field

Learn about public health, why it’s important, and the range of rewarding careers you can have in the field.

Public health officials observe global health issues in a presentation

Public health is all about protecting the health of communities. It is a field that involves many different aspects, from environmental studies to epidemiology, and social work to health education. If you want to make a difference in the world and help people live healthier lives, then public health might be the perfect career for you.

What is the definition of public health?

CEA Winslow, an instrumental historical figure in public health, defines it as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organised efforts and informed choices of society, organisations, public and private, communities and individuals.” 

In other words, public health is all about keeping people healthy and preventing illness. It is a field that looks at the big picture of health and wellbeing, working to find solutions to improve the overall health of communities. 

The face of public health has changed and evolved over the years, but its goal remains the same: to protect and improve the health of as many people as possible. Our A History of Public Health in Post-War Britain course by the London School of Hygiene outlines how public health has changed since the 1950s.

Public health challenges

Public health is constantly facing new challenges, so it is important to be up-to-date to work effectively in this field. We’ll talk about some of the biggest challenges and priorities of public health below.

These are just some of the challenges that public health officials face on a daily basis. In order to work in this sector, it’s important to be knowledgeable about these issues and have the skills necessary to address them. 

Taking the Tackling Public Health Issues: Concepts and Evidence course by the University of Liverpool will give you a strong foundation in public health and prepare you to tackle public health challenges head-on.

1. Globalisation and pandemics

Globalisation has a direct impact on public health, as diseases are spreading more quickly than ever before. With climate change making our world more hospitable to pests and viruses, we’re seeing an increase in pandemics and other global health threats. 

Public health officials need to be prepared for these threats and have systems in place to respond quickly when a crisis occurs — such as the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

2. Mental health

Often overlooked, mental health is a critical part of overall health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, there is still stigma attached to mental illness, which can make it difficult for people to seek help. 

Public health officials fight to do more to promote mental health awareness and provide resources for those who need help. The Monday Campaigns: Lessons in Public Health Promotion course by Johns Hopkins University is a good introduction to best practices and strategies to effectively promote health messages.

3. Drug and alcohol abuse

Substance abuse is a major public health concern and is only getting worse. Drug and alcohol addictions can lead to serious health problems and often go hand-in-hand with other mental health issues. 

Public health officials need to find ways to prevent substance abuse and provide resources for those who need help. The Drug Use and Harm Reduction course by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and INPUD is a great resource for learning more about this issue and how to address it.

What is global health?

Global health is a field that looks at the health of populations around the world. It is an interdisciplinary field that includes experts from many different backgrounds, such as medicine, public health, epidemiology, sociology, and economics. 

Global health officials work to improve the health of people in all parts of the world, and their work can involve everything from providing vaccines to developing new treatments for disease. It involves alliances between government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector to address global health concerns. 

The Building Alliances in Global Health: From Global Institutions to Local Communities course by Johns Hopkins University and STRIPE is a great introduction to the field of global health and how to build alliances to improve health outcomes.

What is the World Health Organisation?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is the leading global health organisation. It works to promote health, prevent disease, and improve the lives of people around the world. The WHO has a wide range of programs and initiatives that focus on different aspects of global health, such as immunisation, disease prevention, and maternal and child health. The WHO also provides guidance to countries on how to improve their health systems and respond to public health emergencies.

Global health challenges

The field of global health is constantly evolving, and new challenges are always emerging. Some of the biggest challenges currently facing global health include:

  1. Non-communicable diseases: NCDs are a major problem in many parts of the world, and they are often the leading cause of death. Examples include conditions like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
  2. Infectious diseases: From COVID-19 to HIV, we’re all too aware of the devastating consequences of infectious diseases spreading around global populations, and spiralling out of control. Global health officials need to be prepared for these threats and have systems in place to respond quickly when a crisis occurs. The Collecting and Using Data for Disease Control and Global Health Decision-Making course by Johns Hopkins University and STRIPE is a great resource for learning more about using data to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.
  3. Access to healthcare: There are many people around the world who do not have access to quality healthcare. This can be due to poverty or lack of infrastructure, but it is a major challenge for global health officials. The challenge is to find ways to bring healthcare to those who need it, while also ensuring that everyone has access to affordable care.

The Planning and Managing Global Health Programmes: Promoting Quality, Accountability, and Equity course by Johns Hopkins University and STRIPE will give you the skills and knowledge needed to tackle some of these challenges. This course is designed for health professionals who want to work in global health, and it will prepare you to take on a leadership role in this field.

Skills needed to work in public health

Working in public health requires a variety of different skills, so it might be worth seeing if you’re the right kind of person for the field. Below are some of the most important.

  • Critical thinking: Public health officials need to be able to think critically about the problems they face. They must identify the root cause of a problem and develop creative solutions.
  • Communication: Communicating effectively with a variety of audiences is an important skill. You’ll need to be able to explain complex concepts in simple terms and persuade people to take action. The Business Fundamentals: Effective Communication course by the Open University can help you improve your communication skills and learn how to tailor your message to different audiences.
  • Organisational skills: Public health officials need to be organised and efficient. They need to be able to manage large amounts of data and information and coordinate activities across different teams.
  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to build relationships with a variety of people is an important part of working in public health. They need to be able to work well with others and resolve conflict.
  • Technical skills: Having strong technical skills will allow global health officials to use data and analytics to solve problems. Data analytics courses in healthcare can help you develop these skills.

Why work in public health?

There are many reasons why someone might want to work in public health. We’ll explore some of the most popular below. 

Improving health and wellbeing

One of the primary reasons that people seek to work in public health is because they want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. They understand that the choices we make about our health have a profound impact on our quality of life, and they are passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities.

Achieving equity in health

Another reason why people want to work in public health is to achieve equity in health. They believe that everyone deserves the same opportunity to live a healthy life, regardless of their background or circumstances. They see public health as a way to level the playing field and give everyone a fair chance at a healthy life.

Support your community

Many people who work in public health do so because they want to support their community. They see public health as a way to make their community a better place to live, and they want to use their skills and knowledge to help others. They understand that the health of a community is vital to its overall success, and they are committed to improving the health of those around them.

How to work in public health

The face of public health is constantly changing, and new opportunities are emerging all the time. Read on to find out more about the varied sectors within public health and the different roles that exist within them. 

Working for the NHS

One of the most popular ways to work in public health is to join the NHS. The NHS is the largest employer of public health professionals in the UK, and there are a variety of roles available. From working in hospitals and GP surgeries to working in community health centres and mental health services, there are many different ways to get involved.

Working in the public sector

Another popular way to work in public health is to join the public sector. There are a variety of roles available in:

  • Local government: Public health teams in local councils work to improve the health and wellbeing of their communities. They develop and deliver services and initiatives that promote healthy lifestyles, working with partner organisations to make sure that everyone has access to the care and support they need.
  • Civil service: There are a number of public health roles available in the civil service, from working in policy to delivery. Civil servants work on a variety of issues that affect the health and wellbeing of the population, and they play an important role in developing and implementing government policy.
  • Higher education: Professionals working in higher education as public or global health teachers conduct research and teach future generations of public health workers. Higher education is a great way to use your skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world, and it’s an excellent way to develop your career.

Working in the private sector

There are also a number of public health roles available in the private sector:

  • Private and independent companies: These companies may provide services to the NHS, local councils, or other organisations, or they may work directly with the public.
  • Public organisations: These work to improve the health and wellbeing of the population, and many of them rely on public health professionals to help them achieve their goals. Examples of these include think tanks and professional bodies like the Royal Society for Public Health and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
  • Consultancy firms: Consultants provide advice and support to organisations on a range of issues, including public health. Many consultancy firms have public health specialists who can offer their expertise and advice on a variety of topics.

Working in the third sector

The third sector is made up of organisations that are not part of the government or the private sector:

  • Charities: Some charities focus on specific issues, such as cancer or heart disease, while others take a more general approach.
  • Social enterprises: Social enterprises are businesses that have a social or environmental mission. Many social enterprises work in the public health sector and often use their profits to support a cause.

Types of jobs in public health

Public health is a broad field, meaning there are many different types of jobs available in several different settings. Here are a number of jobs you can consider to get involved in public health:

  • Nurses provide care for patients and work to prevent illnesses. There are many different types of nurses, such as registered or licensed practical nurses, and certified nurse assistants. The Public Health and Nursing ExpertTrack by Coventry University will give you the skills and knowledge you need to pursue a career in nursing — from healing the community to promoting a culture of health.
  • Doctors diagnose and treat illnesses. There are many different types of doctors, such as general practitioners, specialists and surgeons.
  • Healthcare managers plan, direct, and coordinate the delivery of healthcare services.
  • Pharmacists dispense medications and provide information about their use.
  • Paramedics provide emergency medical care.
  • Educators teach people about healthy lifestyles and disease prevention. They may work in schools, community centres, or other settings.
  • Researchers study diseases and develop new treatments. For example, epidemiologists study how diseases spread and how they can be prevented.
  • Policymakers develop policies that promote healthy lifestyles and prevent disease. Take the Musculoskeletal Health: A Public Health Approach course by the UK Health Security Agency to learn more about how policy can be used to improve public health.
  • Environmental health officers protect people from environmental hazards, such as noise and air pollution, and water contamination. The Public Health Incidents Involving Lead course by the UK Health Security Agency can help you learn more by giving you the skills and knowledge needed to respond to public health incidents involving hazardous materials.

Final thoughts

There are many different ways to get involved in public health, so if you want to make a difference, there is sure to be a role that is perfect for you. Simply get started with the course of your choice and you’ll be prepared to start a career in public health in no time. If you still aren’t sure whether public health is for you, you can explore our best courses for careers in healthcare to explore different options.

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