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Why Choose a Career in Public Health?

Why Choose a Career in Public Health?

Why should you choose a career in public health? For those who have a passion to make a difference, to help others, and to be challenged intellectually, spiritually, mentally, and even physically, there is no better field.  Consider this:

Public health is multidisciplinary

Public health is such a multidisciplinary field, that there is literally something for everyone.  Are you an engineer or technically inclined?  You could be an industrial hygienist, keeping industrial workers safe and healthy, or you could be an ergonomic engineer, designing workspaces and devices that maximize human ergonomics.  Are you very quantitative?  You could become a biostatistician, analyzing data using the latest statistical methods, or an epidemiologist, overseeing large health studies.  Do you like computers and data systems?  You could become a public health informatician, designing data systems to collect health data.  Do you like clinical medicine?  You could become a public health nurse, or an epidemiologist conducting outbreak investigations.  Like microbiology or genetics?  You could work in a public health lab, or conduct public health research at a research center.  Are you a social scientist?  You could work in health care promotion, or health education.  Do you like law or business?  You could work in health care administration, health law, or lobby for health care reform. 

Don't like to be pigeonholed?  Consider yourself a "Renaissance" man or woman, with broad interests?  Then public health is perfect.  The best public health practitioners can draw from very disparate disciplines to come up with solutions to complex health problems.  In fact, public health takes a holistic approach to health, looking at health and disease from a broader, population-level perspective.

Public health is challenging

Consider some of the challenges in health in the 21st century:

  • Avian influenza
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Bioterrorism
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health
  • Drug resistant diseases
  • Emerging and re-emerging diseases
  • Environmental toxins
  • Inequities in health care access

These are some of the threats to our health that we will be facing in the years to come.  And most experts agree that these problems can't be tackled with new medical findings or cures; it is up to public health to protect us from these threats.

Public health is fulfilling

There is no better way to affect people's lives than through public health.  Consider that while clinicians can make a difference in the life of one, public health can make a difference in the lives of tens, hundreds, and even thousands or millions.  The smallpox eradication effort, one of the most successful public health initiatives in history, saved literally billions of lives.  Also consider that of the 30 additional years that people will live since 1900, over twenty-five of the 30 years can be accredited to public health initiatives.  What better way is there to leave the world a better place than you found it?

Public health is global as well as local

There's no better way to make your community a better place to live than public health.  Your efforts in disease prevention, health promotion, health administration or legislation, and health research can make your village, town, city, state or country a healthier and happier place.  But public health is also global.  Diseases don't recognize political borders, and as technology makes our world a smaller place, it also makes it a more dangerous place for diseases.  SARS and avian flu reminded us that disease that affect those half a globe away can impact us.  And our melting pot of different races, ethnicities, languages and cultures require global awareness for public health to be successful.  So whether you promote prenatal health in Kanab, Utah, or you vaccinate children in a refugee camp in Sudan, there's a place in public health for you.

Public Health is in demand

As discussed above, the increasing challenges to our health will require an ever expanding workforce.  Events such as the anthrax bioterrorism attack and Hurricane Katrina highlighted how we need to strengthen our public health infrastructure to respond to future threats.  However, the opposite is happening to our public health workforce.  Approximately 50% of the public health workforce will reach retirement age within the next five years.  So there is a great demand for the next generation of public health practitioners ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Here are some facts from the Association of Schools for Public Health:

  1. The ASPH estimates that 250,000 more public health workers will be needed by 2020.
  2. The public health workforce is diminishing over time (there were 50,000 fewer public health workers in 2000 than in 1980), forcing public health workers to do more for more people with fewer resources.
  3. This challenge is compounded by the fact that 23% of the current workforce—almost 110,000 workers—are eligible to retire by 2012.
  4. There are documented and forecasted shortages of public health physicians, public health nurses, epidemiologists, health care educators, and administrators. Without enough public health workers protecting us where we live, work, and play, we all are vulnerable to serious health risks.
  5. To replenish the workforce and avert the crisis, schools will have to train three times the current number of graduates over the next 11 years.