Online Degrees in Public Health

Public health professionals work to affect positive changes in the health and well-being of all people, engaging in everything from national campaigns to promote healthy eating to community initiatives to increase access to affordable health care. Public health professionals can be emergency responders, nurses and physicians, epidemiologists, educators, and policy makers. From establishing vaccination programs to teaching children how to live healthy lives, employees in the public health professions make a powerful difference in people's lives.

The distinction between clinical health careers and public health professions is that clinicians treat individuals, while public health professionals work with entire populations, focusing on disease prevention and education about healthy living. The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) reports that the biggest challenge in advancing health care is not in finding new medical breakthroughs, but in the application of population-based prevention programs.

Choosing the Right Public Health Degree

There are a wide range of campus-based and online health care degrees in public health available, and interested students may also pursue degrees in a closely related field such as nursing or public policy. Professionals typically complete undergraduate coursework in biology, mathematics, biostatistics, epidemiology, anthropology, behavioral science, information technology or education.

The ASPH recommends that professionals earn at least a master's degree in public health. Public health degrees at the graduate level include:

  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Health Administration (MHA)
  • Master of Health Services Administration (MHSA)
  • Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Professional degrees are most applicable to those looking to practice in a health care or community education setting, while academic degrees such as the PhD or MSPH may be more appropriate for those interested in research. Students may also choose to earn a dual degree, adding a specialty in business, nursing, medicine, dentistry, social work, public policy or law.

Careers in Public Health

Today's public health professionals work in education, administration and management, policy, community practice, and research. Job titles for public health workers include the following:

  • Health scientist
  • Policy analyst
  • Health care administrator
  • Health educator
  • Research associate
  • Data analyst
  • Epidemiologist

Public health professionals work across a wide range of settings, including public and private foundations, academic or governmental institutions, research laboratories, consulting companies, crisis centers, relief agencies, regulatory agencies, hospitals and clinics, health care industries, and national or global health care organizations.

Salary and Employment Outlook

Public health professionals earn a diverse range of salaries depending on the specialty and employment setting. As health care professionals, many public health workers stand to benefit from the explosive job growth in this sector, and many public health careers are growing faster than average.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job growth for health educators will reach 18 percent during the decade from 2008 to 2018. The mean annual wage for health educators in 2010 was $50,270. Epidemiologists are projected to see a 15 percent increase in openings from 2008 to 2018 with mean annual wages of $68,280. Openings for medical and health service managers are expected to grow by 16 percent over that same period, with mean annual salaries of $93,670.

Public health at a glance:

  • Top employers in the public health sector include governmental agencies, research laboratories, public clinics and social service organizations.
  • Many agencies require administrators and other professionals to hold master's degrees.
  • Job growth in many public health fields is predicted to be between 15 and 20 percent from 2008 to 2018.

Public health professionals research, promote and educate individuals on health-related issues. An interdisciplinary field, public health encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including social work, nutrition, urban planning, health services, environmental science, and education. A bachelor's degree in any of these or related fields can be a good foundation for pursuing a master's in public health.

Core curriculum in the master's program focuses on health, problem solving, and social and behavioral sciences. The online degree option is designed for working professionals, so courses can be completed without disrupting full-time employment or other obligations.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Public Health Entail?

A master's degree in public health can take up to three years to complete, though accelerated programs might take between one and two years. The program requires a number of core courses and electives. Below are some examples of topics students can expect to study:

  • Principles of Biostatistics: In this course, students learn about measurements, variability, probability, central tendencies and other points that apply to collecting and analyzing data on certain populations. Coursework might also cover correlation, regression, contingency tables, response variables, proportion inference and similar subjects.
  • Public Health Leadership and Administration: This class focuses on analyzing the cost and delivery of health care for various populations, as well as financing, organization, outcomes and accessibility of health care. Additional topics may include administrative duties and management tactics for problem-solving.
  • Biology of Public Health: This course includes study of diseases in the public health arena, including transmission of infectious disease, risk factors for specific populations, and vulnerabilities that can lead to outbreaks and epidemics. Students may also look at different control strategies, notifications, treatments and effective interventions.
  • Environmental Health Sciences: In this class, students gain an understanding of environmental and occupational hazards and how to prevent them, including specific study on toxic metals, air pollution, pesticides, radiation, global climate changes and infectious disease, among others. Some courses include in-depth study of third-world countries and the special challenges presented by a harsher environment.
  • Health Services Systems: This courses examines the major health systems, including quality of care, control of costs, self-regulation and third-party regulation, organizational approaches, government involvement, ethical issues of health care and system reform practices, both in practice and theory.

In addition to core courses, many schools allow students to choose electives based on a particular area of focus. These concentrations could include child and adolescent health, humanitarian assistance, health systems and policy, infectious diseases, global environmental sustainability or health leadership and management.

Master's degree programs typically culminate in a capstone course or thesis, which is used to demonstrate a grasp of the knowledge gained during the program. Some programs also require a practicum experience in the field, allowing students to put the knowledge and skills they've gained to use in an actual public health setting.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Public Health

Just as there are numerous concentrations for the degree itself, there are many career paths a public health student might pursue. The New York State Department of Health lists a wide range of career options in the field, including public health educator, outreach worker, research scientist, epidemiologist, and nutritionist/dietitian, to name just a few. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for health educators and community health workers is projected to grow 21 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022.

With a master's degree in public health, graduates might find work in government laboratories, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, non-profit organizations, humanitarian aid organizations, universities, hospitals, health departments, social services or a variety of other health-oriented settings.

Public health professionals are on the front lines of health care, tracking suspicious illnesses, developing health educational materials and creating more effective health care policies. At the highest levels, public health professionals research diseases, manipulate raw data and develop empirical solutions to public health policy problems. A doctoral degree in public health provides training in both the research methods and existing theory in the field.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Public Health Entail?

Students can choose from two different public health doctorate degrees. A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in public health is designed for students who wish to pursue a career in research, academia or upper-level administrative positions in health services. The less-common Doctor of Public Health (Dr.P.H.) program is tailored for professionals who plan to use their education to pursue executive management and leadership positions in public health enterprise organizations.

Online doctoral degree programs in public health may require short residencies at a campus location, and these residencies may be spaced throughout the entirety of the program or they may be concentrated during the dissertation writing period, depending on the school. Some online programs in public health also include a clinical externship, although this may be waived for students with sufficient work experience in the field.

Coursework requirements for your degree vary based on your chosen institution and specialization. Here are a few of the specializations you can choose from for your doctorate in public health:

  • Biosecurity and disaster preparedness
  • Environmental and occupational health
  • Epidemiology
  • Health management and policy
  • Health services research

Each specialization comes with its own particular curriculum, but certain core academic goals are common to all public health doctoral programs. For instance, topics such as foundations of public health, ethics and disease transmission are covered in most programs. These core courses are usually taken early in your program before you move on to your area of specialization.

Online public health doctorate programs culminate in a dissertation on a topic relevant to your chosen specialization. A faculty advisor oversees the dissertation research, which typically takes place during the final year or two of a program. Most programs conclude core coursework before dedicated dissertation research begins in order to give students room to focus on their final project.

Requirements for Earning a Doctorate in Public Health

A bachelor's degree or higher is required before enrolling in a public health doctoral program, and a master's in public health or a related field can be very helpful. At many schools, students must also take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) before applying. Some Dr.P.H. programs require experience in the health care field for admission, but prior experience is typically not necessary for Ph.D. in public health programs. Programs can take between four and five years, depending primarily on the length of time required for the dissertation.

If you are considering an online doctorate in public health, you can browse the offerings below and request more information from programs that interest

"Careers in Public Health," New York State Department of Health, http://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/public_health_works/careers/
"Health Educators and Community Health Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2014-15 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm
"Public Health Overview," ExploreHealthCareers.org, http://explorehealthcareers.org/en/Field/11/Public_Health

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