Description of the Field
Healthcare is a dynamic industry that is continuously in need of talented professionals to keep up with its rapid changes and to meet the new standards of the patient community. Issues that are highly emphasized in the field include how to improve the delivery of healthcare, who will be giving the services, and how to finance these services. A background in economics is strong preparation for the required analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills for entry into healthcare services in all sectors.
Professionals in public and private healthcare services provide institutions and organizations effective solutions to improve healthcare quality and affordability and often advocacy to influence change. They offer their services by undertaking the expected growing problems in today’s society to ensure service performance satisfaction and to develop better methods of health awareness and management. This field is increasing cross-discipline and cross-specialty collaboration, particularly with oral health, behavioral health, and primary care. Professionals tackle current problems such as:
- Management of an aging population with a longer life expectancy
- Better-informed patients demanding high-quality care
- Integration of healthcare delivery to enable organizations to create accessible, appropriate, and comprehensive care pathways for all people
- Pressure from business, government, insurers, and patients to control costs and demonstrate the value of the services delivered
- Continued advances in medical technology
- Collaboration among provider organizations, physicians, businesses, insurers, and others to improve community health status and system interoperability
- Increased emphasis on disease prevention and wellness promotion
- Data management and integration of public health, healthcare quality, and pay-for-performance
- Coordinated care and service to wounded veterans
(Taken in part from the American College of Healthcare Executives, 2013).
The world faces significant public health challenges—the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the threat of bioterrorism, serious conditions ranging from heart disease to cancer, the health of our increasingly aging populations, the safety of our water and our food, and high-risk lifestyles, like smoking and substance abuse. Infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, have the ability to destroy lives, strain community resources, and threaten national security. In today's global environment, new diseases have the potential to spread across the world quickly, making prevention, early detection, and action more important than ever.
All of these issues make careers in public health inherently multidisciplinary and demand that professional work extends across the biological, quantitative, and social sciences. Public health professionals confront the most pressing diseases of our time: AIDS, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—by adding to the knowledge of their underlying structure and function. Because preventing disease is at the heart of public health, one must look towards the social sciences to better understand health-related behaviors and their societal influences—critical elements in educating and empowering people to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Nutrition and epidemiologic aspects of nutrition may also affect public health. Nutrition policy and the evaluation of nutritional interventions are long-standing interests nationally and internationally. Research ranges from molecular biology to human studies of cancer and heart disease, including the conduct of population-based intervention trials. Techniques in biochemistry, physiology, biostatistics, epidemiology, and related fields are all relevant to health and nutrition.
In addition, the need to understand the essential links between the social, physical, and economic environments and the health of individual patients and their families are vital. Areas of interest in public health include family practice, epidemiology and biometry, environmental and occupational health, nutrition, public health policy, and the social and economic aspects of the health care system.[i]
On the Job
There is wide variety in the public health sector job market, so job descriptions may vary depending on the area of work. Entry level work in public health can be found in the areas of public policy, community practice, and research.i Meaningful work may be found working for a federal, state, or local government agency. Outreach specialists, healthcare analysts, and research assistants are a few entry level jobs in the public sector. The work of public health specialists may involve collecting and analyzing data to identify community needs; planning, implementing, and evaluating healthy lifestyle programs; presenting health education and promotion programs; and, maintaining relationships with public health agencies and organizations.
There are numerous career paths in the field of public healthcare. Because of the rapid changes in the healthcare system, there are many different settings other than hospitals in which professionals may work such as federal government agencies, local and state public health departments, think tanks/research institutes, and foundations. Career options in healthcare can range from a variety of positions in both private/commercial and government sectors. These professionals may work as health executives, policy consultants, analysts, or researchers.
In the public health sector, at least five or more years of experience is typically required to obtain a job in high-impact areas such as those in developing countries.i (See the categories in italics below for high-impact areas.) There are many different career paths in the public health field. Those who go into the field typically obtain a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, which offers many opportunities and specializations in the five core disciplines of research, policy, education, administration/management, and community practice. Some samples of the profession include health educators, program managers, and food security specialists.i A degree in economics is a good foundation for entry-level analyst/research roles in each of the five core disciplines. An advanced degree will make you more competitive and will allow you to specialize. In public health, some careers may lead to international jobs in geographic areas where healthcare is in high demand. It is recommended that those who seek international employment should have working knowledge and experience of those regions and their specific needs.i Therefore, internships/field experiences abroad are highly essential.
Research: Applied research in public health is a discipline for those who have interdisciplinary skills in the sciences, such as biological, natural, economic, or social science. Research is essential to the field because it leads to innovative discoveries in preventing chronic diseases or detecting new illnesses. Sample job titles include biostatisticians, research associates, and even epidemiologists. These professionals may work at private research firms, universities, state and local governments, or federal research agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Policy: The aim of health policy is to examine the effectiveness of health systems on communities and individuals. Because healthcare is constantly evolving, the role of health policy analysts and consultants is significant in society. A graduate degree in public health allows professionals in this discipline to advance to positions in which they are able to make important policy decisions that affect large numbers of people. Those who go into health policy may work for consulting firms, think tanks, government agencies, or advocacy groups.
Education: Education is a core discipline in public health because nearly all aspects of education will lead to career opportunities that influence the health of individuals. Problems in public health are complex and comprised of social, medical, legal, and economic issues. Those who are educators or conduct research/program development in the field are able to teach, create, and implement programs that can help to improve overall health. Professions include professors, outreach specialists, and health and outreach educators. Professionals may work at colleges and universities, public and private secondary schools, non-profit organizations, community organizations, and international organizations.
Administration/management: The dynamic attribute of the healthcare system makes room for professionals in the public health sector to manage complex institutions and health delivery programs. There are many career opportunities in administration and management for individuals with a public health degree since either a concentration in business/economics or science is helpful in working to improve the healthcare system. Healthcare managers or administrators may work in setting such as hospitals and clinics, insurance companies, international agencies, or pharmaceutical firms.
Community Practice: Career paths in community practice offer opportunities for leadership and flexible positions in healthcare. The job descriptions of these career opportunities vary greatly since job settings may include voluntary agencies, rehabilitation centers, relief agencies, consulting firms, or international organizations. Therefore, those who go into community practice may be community educators, food specialists, assistant health officers, or even executive directors.
Federal, State and Local Offices: Professionals may consider working for federal, state, and local health departments as well as Medicaid/Medicare offices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services includes within in the FDA, Center for Disease Control and the NIH.
Because the field of healthcare is constantly developing, the demand for professionals in this field is very high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be an increase of 22% in healthcare managers employed from 2010 to 2020. This rate is higher than the average for all occupations. In today’s society, medical services continue to increase as the baby-boomer generation begins to age and people are living longer. Because of this, health executives and consultants, both public and private, will be needed to manage, analyze, and communicate medical information, as well as organize health resources to keep up with the rise in patients and physicians.
Healthcare is the largest industry in the U.S. and it will continue to grow. This means there will be great focus on the process of cost-containment, which will increase the demand for innovative leaders in finance and economics. As the system continues to change within different countries around the world, it is important to have professionals who are knowledgeable about international health. Emerging medical, social, legal, economic, and epidemic issues will create demand for problem-solving policymakers and health educators.
Qualifications Necessary to Enter the Field
Careers in both public and private health organizations share similar requirements and competition is seen at all levels of careers in healthcare. Thus, a degree of some kind is required to work in the field. In order to be qualified for a management or research career in healthcare, employers look for academic training, past related experience, analytical skills, communication skills, adaptability, and dependability. A bachelor’s degree is enough to go into many entry-level health services jobs such as healthcare managers or medical managers. Although many schools offer undergraduate degrees in health service management, degrees in other areas such as business, economics, or the liberal arts are sufficient to enter the field as well.
In order to advance in a career in healthcare, a master’s degree in Health Administration or Public Health may be needed. A Master in Public Health (MPH) is highly recommended to enter the five disciplines of public health as stated in the above section.
Sample Group of Employers
American Red Cross International- www.redcross.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – http://www.cdc.gov
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services - https://www.cms.gov/
Department of Agriculture- http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome
Department of Health and Human Services - http://www.hhs.gov/about/careers/
Department of Health and Human Services and Affiliated Agencies (for organizational chart for employment research, see the end of this document)
International Women’s Health Coalition- www.iwhc.org/
Management Sciences for Health- http://www.msh.org
National Institute of Health- http://www.nih.gov
Partners in Health- http://www.pih.org
UNICEF - http://www.unicef.org/ (copy and paste)
USAID (United States Agency for International Development) – www.usaid.gov
World Health Organization - http://www.who.int
Selected U.Va. Organizations/CIOS
For a full list of U.Va. organizations, please see: https://atuva.student.virginia.edu/Organizations
Global Medical Dental Brigades
Global Public Health Brigades
MEDLife at U.Va.
Sample UVA Career Programs
Careers in Healthcare
Exploring Careers in Healthcare
Health Careers Shuffle
Resources for Additional Information
- American College of Healthcare Executives- http://www.ache.org/carsvcs/ycareer.cfm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics- http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Management/Medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health- http://www.jhsph.edu/
- Unite For Sight Global Health Careers online modules - http://www.uniteforsight.org/global-health-careers/
- Vault Career Guide to Health Care Management
- Vault Career Guide to Alternative Health Care Jobs
- Vault Career Guide to Health Care Provider Jobs
- Healthcare Economics, Healthcare Medical Economics, and Medical Economics- http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Healthcare-Economics-Healthcare-Medical-Economics-140726?trk=myg_ugrp_ovr
- Global Public Health- https://www.linkedin.com/groups/120372/profile
Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, “Career Opportunities in Public Health and Nutrition”
Special thanks to alumna Caitlin Feller for contributing to this overview.