In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, people living across the globe have become increasingly interested in the field of public health. The pandemic represents a watershed moment for public health professionals, demonstrating just how disruptive global health issues can be at the local level. To understand the role of public health, it’s important to consider the core goals of the profession. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, public health is “concerned with protecting the health of entire populations” by preventing disease, promoting healthier lifestyles and educating the public about chronic illnesses, comorbidities and environmental risks. But considering the wide availability of health-related information on the internet, why is public health important to the well-being of both individuals and communities?
The importance of public health
The public health field is broad and diverse, bringing together experts with very different backgrounds and perspectives. Through close collaboration, healthcare researchers, public health professionals, government officials, community stakeholders, and others seek to mitigate the impact of health problems, from heart disease and diabetes to infectious diseases and environmental hazards. This is often achieved through in-depth research, public outreach and the creation of educational materials that align with the needs of different populations. In this way, public health is essential to protecting underserved or marginalized communities that may not have access to high-quality public health programs.
One of the most important roles of the public health field is to create an evidence-based consensus around specific health problems and their proposed solutions. For example, the number of motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S. increased 838% between 1913 and 2018, according to data collected by the National Safety Council. While this long, steady rise in crash-related fatalities is largely due to the heightened use of personal vehicles, other factors like seat belt usage also play a key role. After conducting extensive research, public health professionals lobbied U.S. lawmakers to implement mandatory seatbelt laws, which have helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, public health professionals also investigate the impact of health issues like infectious diseases, hereditary conditions, pollution and even mental illness.
This brings us back to our initial question: Why is public health important? In short, the field of public health works to improve the life expectancy and overall wellness of diverse populations. This in turn, can lead to a better quality of life for countless people domestically and abroad, including in countries that may not have the infrastructure available to conduct public health research on their own. Vaccines are perhaps the most straightforward example: Thanks to the efforts of healthcare researchers and public health professionals, no cases of polio have originated from the U.S. since 1979, according to the CDC. The polio vaccine has also been shared with other nations, helping reduce the global infection rate and all but eliminate the disease from modern life.
To understand why public health is important in real-world scenarios, it’s useful to breakdown how different focus areas contribute to global health initiatives and the well-being of local communities:
Public health research
Public health researchers shed light on the root causes and risk factors of medical conditions, environmental hazards and genetic disorders. This often involves studying the biological, behavioral, social and environmental influences behind major health problems. In many cases, public health professionals conduct detailed population surveys and analyze historical trends to form conclusions about specific health conditions. Using scientific evidence, they then develop and propose new intervention strategies, health policies and treatment practices, in addition to identifying ways to prevent the problem from reoccurring. This research is the backbone of public health work, as it provides educators, lobbyists and hands-on consultants with the information they need to make a meaningful, positive and long-term impact.
Public health communication
Public outreach and communication help to transform scientific evidence into digestible, easy-to-understand resources tailored to the needs and preferences of specific populations. According to the World Health Organization, public health communication is relevant to nearly every aspect of community wellness, from disease prevention to health promotion. Public health professionals leverage a variety of media strategies to keep the general public informed about trending health issues, using channels such as radio, television, social media and print publications. When creating education resources, public health communicators must carefully consider their medium of choice, their target audience and the context around the health problem they’re trying to alleviate.
Public health programs
The public health system encompasses a wide spectrum of institutions, including health care providers, public safety agencies, environmental organizations and even charities. Together, these organizations work to improve the health of individuals and communities by maintaining public-facing programs and services – i.e., mental health support, family counselling, nutrition and fitness workshops and occupational therapy. These community resources are invaluable to millions of people around the country, helping them take charge of their own well-being and practice healthier behaviors. Since the field of public health is largely focused on prevention, community-based programs play a leading role in promoting health-conscious lifestyles and reducing the risks of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Public health policy
As the CDC explains, the health of any nation or local community is heavily influenced by public health policies. Working closely with healthcare researchers, government officials and community stakeholders, public health professionals develop and advocate for action plans, regulations and laws that can help them achieve specific health goals. For example, Indiana recently passed a new law, House Bill 1070, concerning “hands-free driving:” As of July 1, 2020, the state has officially prohibited the use of smartphones and other technologies while operating a motor vehicle. Other notable health policies include bans on smoking in public spaces, seat belt laws and regulations that govern Nutrition Facts labels on consumer products.
How an online MPH can prepare you for a successful public health career
If you’re interested in joining the public health field, the online Master of Public Health program at the University of Nevada, Reno, may be the stepping stone you’ve been looking for. This practical MPH degree program teaches students to look beyond physical health to the environmental, economic and social factors that impact the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Students also gain a deep understanding of public health policy, health informatics, epidemiology and biostatistics, allowing them to pursue a career that matches their professional interests and goals. Whether you’re hoping to become a public health researcher or a health educator, the MPH degree program can help you assemble the knowledge, skills and experience you need to stand out as a public health professional.