What Is the Difference between Public Health and Community Health?

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Community health workers volunteer at a food drive

As the modern health care system continues to grow both in size and complexity, organizations have had to scale up their workforces to ensure patients receive the care and attention they deserve. This surge in demand has created new opportunities for medical professionals, public health experts and community health organizers with the right educational backgrounds and work experiences. In fact, research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that employment in health care occupations is expected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all U.S. occupations.

Although some believe health care jobs are primarily focused on direct patient services and treatment, the field is home to a diverse range of career paths that don’t always align with traditional medical roles. Both public health and community health occupations fall under the health care umbrella, yet these fields serve very different purposes, even when they’re working toward the same goals.

Professionals in public and community health jobs are dedicated to preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting healthy behaviors through research, education and outreach. Rather than focusing on individual patients, these experts seek to improve the health of entire populations by studying risk factors, comorbidities and other trends that impact overall health and health care delivery. But what is the difference between public health and community health, and how can aspiring professionals choose a career path that aligns with their goals and interests?

Public Health vs. Community Health

Public health and community health are inextricably linked. Professionals in both fields study groups of individuals to monitor health trends, track risk factors for diseases and chronic illnesses and advocate for health program improvement. These research tasks produce a lot of complex data, which is then used to create nationwide studies and educational materials to keep the general public informed. Unlike doctors and nurses, professionals in public and community health jobs spend most of their time working in office settings. While some occupations are a bit more hands-on, most public and community health workers do not provide direct care or treatment to patients.

Community health is actually considered a subdiscipline of public health, one focused on improving the health outcomes of different groups of individuals, often at the local level. Those working in community health jobs typically support specific geographical regions, from small rural towns to large districts in urban areas. By contrast, public health workers are more concerned with preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting healthy behaviors that impact entire nations or society as a whole. For example, a public health worker could be responsible for studying risk factors for the transmission of COVID-19, while community health workers might survey local health services to determine whether citizens have equal access to medical resources.

In practice, the work of both public and community health experts contributes to a healthier, happier society. However, the roles and responsibilities of professionals in these fields varies drastically, which is why it’s important to learn more about these occupations before committing to a particular career path. Earning an online Master of Public Health is one way students and mid-career professionals can expand their employment opportunities and explore different avenues in the health care industry.  Graduating with an advanced degree can not only help candidates stand out during the application process, it can also provide the foundation needed to take on leadership roles at public and community health organizations.

What Is Public Health?

Public health is defined by the CDC Foundation as “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.” This is often achieved through comprehensive research, public outreach and preventive measures, which seek to empower individuals to take charge of their own health and wellness. Depending on their specific job title, public health workers may study disease infection rates, causes of occupational injuries, risk factors for chronic illnesses and other health-related challenges that impact entire populations.

Whereas doctors and nurses are focused on treating patients’ health problems, public health professionals are committed to preventing these issues from manifesting in the first place. Using their research as a guide, they develop educational programs, health policies and evidence-based recommendations aimed at improving the overall health of people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Public health workers also closely collaborate with medical experts, lawmakers and nonprofit organizations to limit health disparities and make health care systems more equitable and accessible for everyone.

Public Health Jobs

Although most of their work is preventative, public health professionals play an active role in the health and well-being of countless people across the world. By studying the spread of infectious diseases through specific populations, they are able to provide timely and relevant information that shapes how governments and health care organizations respond to sudden outbreaks. Other important tasks performed by public health workers include:

  • Ensuring populations have access to clean food, water and air
  • Designing information campaigns to educate the public about health and wellness topics
  • Studying environmental risk factors that impact individual and community health
  • Planning and coordinating large, population-based studies and reports
  • Advocating for health care equality through outreach and policy creation

Of course, some public health professionals have more hands-on roles within medical facilities by improving rehabilitation practices, coordinating patients’ discharge plans and performing interventions. Professionals with a background in direct care are often well suited to these positions, as they may require at least some experience with case management and health care delivery. Those interested in joining the public health field should consider the following occupations as they work toward their career goals:

  • Epidemiologist: These public health workers study disease outbreaks to determine how they spread through diverse populations. By identifying patterns and causes of infectious diseases and even injuries, epidemiologists help reduce the risk and frequency of negative health outcomes.
  • Biostatistician: Biostatisticians apply mathematical and statistical formulas to discover the hidden interconnections between people, the environment, diseases and other sources of health problems. They also study the effects of different medical treatments to gauge effectiveness and cost, leading to better health care practices overall.
  • Health educator: Health educators translate complex medical studies and information into digestible content that the general public can understand and apply. They may be asked to produce blogs, videos, social media posts and other materials to educate groups of individuals about trending health topics, from smoking to heart disease and beyond.
  • Health administrator: Although health administrators work at medical facilities and clinics, they rarely deal with patients directly. Instead, professionals in this role help shape internal policies and procedures to improve health care delivery and reduce overhead costs.

These are only a few examples of public health jobs, yet they help illustrate the wide scope of the field and the diverse employment opportunities available to those with the right qualifications. But what about community health occupations?

What Is Community Health?

Community health is built on the collaborative efforts of countless individuals who work to promote healthy lifestyles within a “geographically or culturally defined group,” according to the American Journal of Managed Care. Unlike many public health initiatives, this promotion is often tailored to specific communities at the local level, allowing professionals to forge stronger relationships with people from distinct cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the AJMC notes, community health often addresses vulnerabilities that fall outside the realm of health care and the life sciences, including education levels, employment status, access to health services and other factors.

The overall health of any community is often dependent on these non-medical characteristics, which are considered “essential determinants of health” by the National Association of County & City Health Officials and other organizations. Community health professionals work to ensure high-risk communities have access to the information, health services and support networks they need to lead happier, healthier lifestyles. This could include creating new policies to improve a community’s access to education, reduce unemployment or enhance public safety.

Community Health Jobs

Community health occupations are typically more collaborative than public health jobs, as professionals regularly interact with patients, community members, lawmakers and other key stakeholders. As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working at the community level allows individuals to improve the health of the greatest number of people and reduce health disparities caused by differences in race, social status, employment, income and other non-medical factors. Some of the responsibilities related to community health roles include:

  • Helping individuals, families and groups access available health services and programs
  • Advocating for local health needs and medical resources that are in high demand
  • Working to eliminate food scarcity, housing issues and unemployment in local communities
  • Identifying environmental risk factors, including air and water pollution
  • Developing educational resources for specific ethnic and socioeconomic groups

Community health professionals help bridge the gap between local community members, health care providers, government and social services. Many in this field choose to work in underprivileged or marginalized communities where people struggle to access and pay for health care. They also support groups of individuals who share cultural beliefs and behaviors that may not align with norms in the U.S. health care system, such as those who cannot speak English fluently. Examples of community health jobs include:

  • Community health worker: These professionals meet with community members face-to-face to discuss health concerns and help ensure health care resources are culturally appropriate. They often work in historically underrepresented communities by offering outreach, education and advocacy services.
  • Health care analyst: Health care analysts sift through complex medical data to evaluate the performance and efficiency of hospitals and other medical facilities. Their goal is to improve health care delivery for specific populations, from rural communities to diverse urban centers.
  • Health coach: Health coaches promote healthy habits and lifestyles by mentoring individuals and groups about nutrition, exercise and chronic illness prevention. They work at businesses and medical facilities to offer hands-on support to those who may not have equal access to health information and social services.
  • Health policy analyst: These community health experts work behind the scenes to assess existing health care programs, policies and laws with an eye for operational improvement and social justice. They work with lawmakers to develop new legislation aimed at improving access to health care resources, reducing wait times and lowering costs.

The fields of public and community health have a lot of overlap, which allows professionals to explore a wide range of careers and employment opportunities. For example, community health workers may be responsible for producing educational materials and learning courses targeting the populations they serve. These work duties are similar to those of health educators, who tend to craft content for the widest possible audiences. After gaining experience in an entry-level role, professionals can seek out new avenues to expand their core competencies and effect change that improves population health management as a whole.

How to Pursue a Career in Public and Community Health

Although qualifications vary between different positions, pursuing a career in public or community health typically starts with earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as public health, health science or health care management. Professionals with years of experience in direct medical care are also well-suited to these occupations, as their knowledge and experience can provide essential context for their outreach and advocacy work. While a master’s degree isn’t required for every public and community health job, earning an advanced degree can give candidates a competitive advantage during the hiring process.

If you’re interested in joining the health care field or looking to take your career to the next level, the online Master of Public Health program at the University of Nevada, Reno, can help you develop the skills, knowledge and experience you need to stand out to potential employers. Students learn how to look beyond physical health and consider the economic, cultural and sociological factors that impact the well-being of individuals and groups. With courses in biostatistics, health policy, organizational behavior and public health finance, you can gain the insights needed to make a real difference in your local community.

To learn more, explore the MPH degree page or contact an enrollment advisor today.

 

Recommended Readings:

Understanding Public Health Jobs

Top Public Health Problems & Concerns

Public Health Policy: Problems and Solutions

 

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Healthcare Occupations

CDC Foundation, What is Public Health?

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers

The American Journal of Managed Care, Creating Clarity: Distinguishing Between Community and Population Health

National Association of County and City Health Officials, Public Health Infrastructure and Systems

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Community Health