Communities around the globe depend upon public health professionals to implement educational programs, develop policies, administer services, conduct research and regulate health systems to promote healthy lifestyles.
According to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, Public health professionals tackle global health issues, such as improving access to health care, controlling infectious disease and minimizing environmental hazards. So instead of treating diseases and injuries one patient at a time, public health professionals work to identify the cause and then implement solutions on a much larger scale.
For instance, instead of treating the victim of one gunshot wound, public health professionals look for the origins of gun violence and develop ways to eliminate them. Rather than treating HIV/AIDS, they look for ways to reduce the prevalence through education and other means. Public health encompasses such areas as chronic disease, mental health, disaster response, injury prevention and even tobacco control.
The role of a public health professional is ever-changing, requiring both hard and soft skills to excel in the field. They often include:
- Advocacy: One of the chief roles of a public health professional is to be an effective agent of change in the health care industry. This means you’ll need to advocate for program and policy changes that enhance and ensure healthy populations.
- Relationship building: In order to successfully advocate change, you’ll need to establish credibility and earn the trust of those you work with (such as lawmakers and communities). Building these partnerships and relationships is crucial to successful outcomes.
- Communication: A public health professional who has mastered the ability to effectively organize and present data to various audiences through a multitude of media channels will prove most essential to their employer. Additionally, the ability to speak and write persuasively to various audiences is valuable.
- Leadership skills: Public health professionals must understand how to interact with other leaders, establish strategies for partnerships, and make tough decisions. Successful leadership builds upon the relationship-building skills to include negotiation and conflict management expertise.
- Teamwork: As with most roles in healthcare, public health professionals simply cannot work in a silo. In order to work toward a shared goal and implement programs, you’ll need to work closely with colleagues (such as social workers, healthcare professionals and management).
- Fiscal responsibility: Since there’s no such thing as unlimited budget and limitless resources, public health professionals will need to be proficient in adhering to an established budget and working around other resource constraints. Often, this means relying on the relationships you’ve built to find solutions to monetary and headcount restrictions.
- Empathy: Above all else, it’s important to be compassionate and a great listener — after all, if you don’t understand the challenges on a personal level and aren’t listening for the real problems, you could easily miss the mark on your strategy and solutions.
Want to know if a career in public health is right for you? Or maybe you’re wondering if you have what it takes to become a public health professional. Either way, a good place to start is with the Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals, a consensus set of skills for public health professionals as defined by the Public Health Foundation.
These competencies reflect foundational skills desirable for professionals at all levels of public health, including those engaged in practice, education and research, and are broken down into the following tiers:
- Tier 1 – Front Line Staff/Entry Level. Tier 1 competencies apply to public health professionals who carry out the day-to-day tasks of public health organizations and are not in management positions.
- Tier 2 – Program Management/Supervisory Level. Tier 2 competencies apply to public health professionals in program management or supervisory roles.
- Tier 3 – Senior Management/Executive Level. Tier 3 competencies apply to public health professionals at a senior management level and to leaders of public health organizations.
Note: the importance of individual competencies to a particular position may vary. For instance, an entry-level health educator who is not responsible for preparing budgets or funding proposal might find developing proficiencies in the communication and cultural competency areas to be more important than skills relating to financial planning and management. However, skills will likely come into play the further you go in your career, and those who intend to advance to the senior management or executive level should be well-rounded.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of epidemiologists is projected to grow 9 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Similarly, employment of health educators and community health workers is projected to grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the average.
In order to snag one of these public health roles, a bachelor’s degree may suffice. But if you want move into academic or government and administrative roles, prospective employers will likely require an advanced degree.
According to the BLS, health educators need at least a bachelor’s degree and many employers require the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential. Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited college or university, such as a Master of Public Health, and some have completed a doctoral degree in epidemiology or medicine.
If you have a specific area of interest for your career path, look for graduate-level classes or programs in the following areas of specialty:
- Biostatistics: Design, analyze and interpret of data
- Behavioral science and health education: Improve public health by encouraging behavioral changes and education
- Environmental health: Identify the relationships and risks of our environment on health
- Epidemiology: Study diseases in given populations
- Health services administration: Manage the resources needed to distribute effective public health services
The American Public Health Association also offers professional development opportunities to help aspiring public health professionals hone their skills.
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