What Is Public Health?

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People who consider studying health care must choose from a multitude of disciplines based on their personal interests and professional goals. For those who aspire to work in the policy side of health care, a career in public health could be a strong option. But what is public health, and what kinds of jobs are available to those who study it?

The public health field focuses on protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. Public health professionals develop programs to promote healthy lifestyles, conduct research into disease and injury prevention, respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases and help develop public health policies.

A Master of Public Health (MPH) degree equips graduates to pursue careers in diverse areas, including public health education, research, biostatistics, epidemiology and health policy. While doctors and nurses practice hands-on clinical care, public health professionals work on health prevention initiatives through scientific research, program development and community health planning.

“Public health is pervasive and impacts our environment, where we live and how we live. It is such a vibrant profession, and the skills MPH students learn in the program are so translatable to their futures,” says Dr. Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community and Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Public health practice is for those who don’t have bachelor’s degrees in public health and would like to move up and expand their knowledge with a broad curriculum that will encompass what they need in their career to be successful.”

Public health promotes accessibility for all citizens to equitable, quality care to help ensure the best health outcomes. Sample initiatives include programs like vaccination campaigns, substance abuse education and the development of school nutrition programs.

Examples of Public Health Laws

Economic, social and environmental factors can have a profound influence on overall population health. For example, insufficient access to preventive medical care, clean water or nutritious foods may threaten the health of an entire community. When this occurs, the government can introduce laws at the local, state and federal levels to minimize the threat. These are some examples of how public health laws are used in the U.S.:

  • Vaccination laws — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health care workers are regularly required by law to be vaccinated for certain diseases before they can work in medical facilities. Vaccination prevents health care employees from getting sick and infecting others. Many state schools and childcare facilities must abide by a similar rule because unvaccinated children may expose their classmates to preventable diseases.
  • Anti-smoking laws — Smoking is a large contributor to the annual number of cancer diagnoses for U.S. citizens. The CDC reports that secondhand smoke causes about 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Public health authorities have recognized that smoke-free laws are the most effective means to protect individuals from secondhand smoke. To date, 25 states have enacted laws banning smoking inside restaurants, bars and workplaces.

Top Public Health Concerns of Today

The CDC is a federal agency that supports health promotion and preventive health care activities in the U.S. In 2017, the CDC focused on several public health threats that continue to be major concerns.

The agency launched a global health security initiative in partnership with epidemiologists and other public health officials around the world to study and contain threats such as Ebola, cholera, measles, yellow fever, polio and Zika. The CDC and its community health partners have also focused on improving the deployment of vaccines to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes certain cancers.

State and federal health officials have worked together to screen for and minimize antibiotic resistance, which diminishes the effectiveness of medications that could prevent the spread of disease outbreaks. The CDC has also increased funding for state programs to reduce rates of opioid addiction and overdose.

Recent Progress in Addressing Public Health Concerns

Scientists at the CDC outlined the achievements of public health professionals during the first decade of this century, which include the following:

  • Vaccine-preventable diseases. New vaccines realized a substantial decrease in cases associated with vaccine-preventable diseases.
  • Prevention and control of infectious diseases. There was a 30 percent reduction in tuberculosis cases and a 58 percent decrease in central line-associated bloodstream infections, according to the CDC.
  • Tobacco control. In 2016, 15.5 percent of adults smoked cigarettes, compared to 20.9 percent of adults in 2005.
  • Cardiovascular disease prevention. Deaths from coronary heart disease and strokes decrease appreciably during the first decade of the century.

The Roles of International Public Health Organizations

International public health organizations consist of multilateral, bilateral and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The most prominent multilateral organizations are run by the United Nations. However, most industrialized countries have bilateral agencies of their own to assist with international health care.

Top multilateral international public health organizations include:

  • WHO – The World Health Organization provides technical assistance to countries around the world, while managing and coordinating health activities.
  • The World Bank – The World Bank is another U.N. agency that loans money to developing countries for health care activities and nutrition.
  • The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – UNICEF focuses on providing health care resources to the world’s underserved child populations.

In the U.S., the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) focuses on providing public health aid to less wealthy countries.

The answer to the question “what is public health?” may be summed up this way: It is collaboration between public and private organizations to improve the overall health and well-being of the global population. Achieving this end takes an array of dedicated, passionate interdisciplinary professionals working together in government programs, international organizations, NGOs and private firms.

Learn More

The online Master of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Reno can provide students the tools they need to enter public health practice with a firm grasp of key concepts and training. Find out more about our comprehensive curriculum and apply today.


Suggested Readings

Public Health vs. Global Health: Understanding The Difference

How Are Public Health Officials Fighting The Crisis of Opioid Addiction?

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Public Health



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What is Public Health?

American Public Health Association

Partnership for Public Health Law

The National Academies Press

Becker’s Healthcare

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vaccination Laws

Tobacco Free Kids

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Smoking & Tobacco Use Fact Sheet