What Is Public Health and Its Importance?

People who consider studying health care must choose from a multitude of disciplines based on their personal interests and professional goals. Those who are interested in delivering hands-on patient care might consider becoming a clinician, such as a registered nurse or nurse practitioner. Administration may be more appealing to people interested in the management of health care facilities.

For those who aspire to work on the policy side of health care, a career in public health might be a rewarding option. Public health workers protect entire populations using a variety of methods. So what is public health, and what kinds of jobs are available in this field?

Considering how its concepts are so widely applied to daily life, public health is one of the cornerstones of modern health care. An advanced degree can help prepare individuals for a career in this vital field.

What Is Public Health?

Many people became familiar with the field of public health due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, public health goes far beyond treating and preventing the spread of viruses. The 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 infectious disease outbreaks, and help develop public health policies.

Public health can be reactive, responding to a viral outbreak or other health threat to mitigate potential harm and help as many people as possible. However, it is also often proactive. Many public health workers focus on educational initiatives that promote healthy lifestyle choices, solving community health problems through prevention.

Public health also 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.

Public Health Fields

Public health workers are employed in a number of areas, striving to safeguard and improve the health and well-being of various populations. These professionals can pursue a career in many different public health fields, where their work can impact populations ranging in size from a small community to an entire country. Some examples of these fields include:

  • Epidemiology
  • Environmental science
  • Biostatistics
  • Health education
  • Community health
  • Occupational health and safety
  • Health policy

Because public health is such a broad field, it provides numerous opportunities for individuals to seek out a career that aligns with their interests.

Public Health Examples

Public health gained prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily briefings by public health officials advising the public on how to curb the spread of the virus were a prime example of public health in action.

To understand what public health is, it’s crucial to note that much of its focus is on awareness and education. This education begins at a very young age. Public health officials often speak with elementary school students about the importance of personal hygiene such as brushing their teeth and handwashing. As children get older, public health initiatives often focus on the importance of exercise; a healthy diet; and avoiding smoking, drugs and underage drinking.

Public health officials also monitor the nation’s food supply for foodborne illnesses. E. coli, listeria and other foodborne illnesses can hit populations quickly and without warning. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was created to mitigate this risk by imposing a standardized system of checks to ensure that contaminated food doesn’t make it to market — or can be quickly recalled if it does.

Mental health and wellness is another area of public health concern. Issues such as gun violence and poverty can negatively affect mental health and limit people’s ability to function. This is why many public health professionals are pushing for mental health resources to be made widely available, even to those who don’t have insurance.

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 applied in the U.S.:

  • Vaccination laws: According to the 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 child care facilities must abide by a similar rule because unvaccinated children can 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 smoking accounts for about 480,000 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, 29 states have enacted laws banning smoking inside restaurants, bars and workplaces.

A jogger running through a forest.

Top Public Health Concerns of Today

Because health threats are constantly evolving, today’s top public health concerns are a wide and varied list that ranges from global threats to systemic issues.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) lists more than 30 public health concerns facing the field today, including the following:

  • Climate change
  • COVID-19
  • Disaster preparedness
  • Environmental and global health
  • Gun violence
  • Health equity
  • Injury and violence prevention
  • Mental health
  • Prescription drug overdose
  • Reproductive and sexual health
  • Social determinants of health
  • Substance misuse
  • Suicide
  • Tobacco use

Recent Progress in Addressing Public Health Concerns

Despite the array of challenges they confront, public health professionals have made significant progress on several fronts in recent years, including the following achievements:

  • COVID-19: As of July 2022, approximately 67% of the global population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with more than 12 billion doses administered, according to Our World in Data. Nearly 79% of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose.
  • Heart disease: The overall age-adjusted death rate for heart disease declined by more than 35% from 2000 to 2019 in the U.S., dropping from 257.6 deaths per 100,000 people to 161.5, according to the CDC.
  • Cancer: The rate of deaths related to cancer dropped by 27% in the U.S. from 2001 to 2020, the CDC reports. The primary reasons for this decline included tobacco prevention campaigns and improved approaches to smoking cessation, advancements in cancer treatment, and improved access to cancer screening.

The work of public health officials has helped mitigate a host of other issues, such as the spread of infectious diseases and blood lead levels in children. Collectively, these efforts demonstrate what public health can achieve.

The Roles of International Public Health Organizations

International public health organizations consist of multilateral, bilateral and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The United Nations (U.N.) runs the most prominent multilateral organizations. However, most industrialized countries have bilateral agencies of their own to assist with international health care.

The top multilateral international public health organizations include the following:

  • World Health Organization (WHO): The WHO provides technical assistance to countries around the world while managing and coordinating health activities.
  • World Bank: The World Bank is another U.N. agency that loans money to developing countries for health care activities and nutrition.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF): UNICEF focuses on providing health care resources to the world’s underserved child populations.
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID): This U.S.-based agency focuses on providing public health aid to less wealthy countries.

Collaboration between public and private organizations can help improve the overall health and well-being of the global population. Achieving this end requires the efforts of dedicated, passionate interdisciplinary professionals working together in government programs, international organizations, NGOs and private firms.

Careers in Public Health

The array of careers in public health is vast, involving various industries and areas of expertise. Epidemiologists, for example, monitor the spread of diseases and viruses using data analysis. They’re informally referred to as “disease detectives” due to the nature of their work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of positions for epidemiologists is projected to grow by 30% between 2020 and 2030.

Health education specialists and community health workers occupy other critical roles in public health. These professionals develop programs and engage in educational initiatives to promote healthy lifestyle choices. The BLS projects that employment of these workers will grow by 17% between 2020 and 2030.

Environmental scientists collect samples of air, water, soil and other materials for study and analysis. They identify environmental issues that are a threat to public health, such as smog, air pollution from factories or water contamination. Environmental scientists typically work closely with local and state government agencies to develop a response. The BLS projects that positions for these roles will grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030.

Begin Your Journey to a Career in Public Health

Public health professionals keep communities safe and promote healthy lifestyles. A Master of Public Health (MPH) degree can equip graduates for careers in areas such as public health education, research, biostatistics, epidemiology and health policy. While doctors and nurses practice hands-on clinical care, public health professionals develop 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.

The online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice at the University of Nevada, Reno, can provide students with the tools they need to enter public health practice with a firm grasp of key concepts and training. Take your first step to a rewarding career in public health with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Recommended Reading:

Benefits and Challenges of Telehealth in Rural Areas

Leadership in Public Health: 3 Challenges and Opportunities 

Types of Social Support in Public Health


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American Public Health Association, Mental Health

American Public Health Association, Topics and Issues

American Public Health Association, What Is Public Health?

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Smoke-Free Laws

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, An Update on Cancer Deaths in the United States

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults in the United States

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, See Yourself in a Public Health Career

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State Declines in Heart Disease Mortality in the United States, 2000–2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State Tobacco Activities Tracking and Evaluation (STATE) System

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

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

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