Careers in Public Health

The need for public health professionals has never been greater. But what is “public health?” Outbreak at Watersedge is an interactive game that will introduce you to the world of public health as you help discover the source of an outbreak that has hit a small community and stop it before more residents get sick.

Public health is concerned about a whole population - a community, city, state, nation or the world. Most of health care focuses, instead, on individuals. Public health focuses more on the preventive aspects of health, while health care focuses more on curing people.

Public health affects our daily life. It focuses on the health of communities and populations, nationally and internationally. The quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat affects our health. Our lifestyles, the ways we relate to one another, and our access to health care have an impact on our health. Ancient wisdom tells us that all creatures and things on this planet are interdependent. Chief Seattle said, “Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Public health practitioners try to develop sound policies and use health promotion and disease prevention strategies that address this interrelatedness.

Public health focuses on disease prevention and health promotion. Many informed observers have concluded that attention to clean air and water and other public health issues have done more to increase the health and longevity of the world’s people than the more dramatic measures taken by surgeons and physicians. They also argue that the major advances in health over the next decades will not come from new medical findings or cures, but rather from the broader development and application of population-based prevention programs. Although public health has not received the accolades given to medicine, its importance is being increasingly recognized. At a time when health costs are soaring, prevention is being given more attention. The concern about damage to the environment and the use of biochemical warfare by terrorists is requiring the skills of public health experts.

Major Problems

Chronic diseases, toxic wastes, behavior-related disorder, health problems of the poor and disadvantaged, hazardous chemical and physical agents, new infectious diseases, health issues of the aging population, and the health of mothers of infants are the top public health concerns identified by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Teen pregnancy, unintentional injuries, substance abuse and violence are also at the top of the list.

Indian Health Service (IHS) declares that the main health challenges currently faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people are the increasing health conditions and chronic diseases that are related to lifestyles issues such as obesity, physical inactivity, poor diet, substance abuse, and injuries. To help meet these challenges, the IHS has launched a Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HP/DP) Initiative to develop a coordinated and systematic approach to enhance preventive health approaches at the local, regional, and national levels.

The Ten Essential Public Health Services

Major public health organizations, such as the
American Public Health Association and the U.S. Public Health Service, list the following as the key services provided by public health specialists

  1. Monitor health status to identify community health problems.
  2. Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community.
  3. Inform, educate and empower people about health issues
  4. Mobilize community partnerships to identify and solve health problems
  5. Develop policies and plans that support individual and community efforts
  6. Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety
  7. Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable
  8. Assure a competent public health and personal health care workforce
  9. Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services
  10. Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.

Public Health Careers

People from a variety of backgrounds work to protect and enhance the health of the public. People with graduate degrees in public health work in a wide variety of jobs. Some serve as researchers, health educators, maternal and child specialists, healthcare managers, epidemiologists, environmental health scientists and international health specialists. People with degrees in public health can also serve in positions such as healthcare policy analysts, air pollution engineers, alcohol rehabilitation specialists, biostatisticians toxicologists, demographers, sanitary engineers, and toxicologists.

Some professionals have degrees in medicine, nursing, social work or other fields, as well as in public health. On this website there are examples of health professionals who earned master’s degrees in public health: Physicians, Dr,
Raymond Reid and Yvette Roubideaux; dentist, Dr. George Blue Spruce; physician assistant Wabanang Kuczek; social worker, Michael Bird; veterinarian, Dwayne Jarman, nurse administrator, Robyn Sunday-Allen; and dietician, Wynona Woolf.

Public Health Care for Indigenous People in the U.S.

A growing number of public health professionals are American Indians. There are public health programs for urban Indians and for Indian on reservations throughout the United States. One of the programs is the Family Spirit Project that takes place on the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Reservation in partnership with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for American Indian Health.

Several other innovative public health projects are described on the
National Indian Health Board website. The National Indian Health Board advocates on behalf of all Tribal Governments and American Indians/Alaska Natives in their efforts to provide quality health care.

Indian Health Service, as part of the Public Health Service, provides a comprehensive health services delivery system for American Indians and Alaska Natives, with opportunity for maximum tribal involvement in developing and managing programs to meet their health needs. It assists Native American tribes in developing their health programs; facilitates and assists tribes in coordinating health planning, obtaining and utilizing health resources available through Federal, State, and local programs, operating comprehensive health programs, and evaluating health programs; and provides comprehensive health care services including hospital and ambulatory medical care, preventive and rehabilitative services, and development of community sanitation facilities.

Parts of this article were originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Tina Santiago, Coushatta.)