Public Health

What is public health?

Taken from various sources of information including the Association of Schools of Public Health, Washington, D.C.

In today's world, public health is relevant, necessary, and challenging. Public health addresses the physical, mental, and environmental health concerns of communities and populations in an interdisciplinary manner. Contributing disciplines include: biological sciences, sociology, mathematics, anthropology, statistics, public policy, medicine, dentistry, mathematics, education, ethnic studies, communication, chemistry, computer science, business, nursing, law, engineering, liberal arts, and others. The focus of public health is on the prevention of injury and disease in populations rather than centering on the health of a single individual by a physician in a clinical setting. The goal of public health is to improve the quality of life in target populations. Public health success is a "non-event." The primary outcomes of public health are an increased lifespan and quality of life

The five core areas of student study within public health are:

Environmental Health
Health Services Administration
Health Behavior and Health Promotion

In addition, specific concentrations within public health are recognized:

Maternal and Child Health
Occupational Safety and Health
Public Health Nursing
Dental Public Health
Biomedical and Laboratory Practice
Public Health Program Management and Practice
International Public Health
Health Law

What makes public health different from the other health professions?

The primary distinction between public health and other health professions is that public health focuses on the health of entire populations while they are still healthy rather than on individual patients after they become sick. Public health professionals monitor and diagnose the health concerns of entire communities and promote healthy practices and behaviors on an on-going basis. Thus, communities need public health all of the time in order to stay healthy. Twenty five years of the thirty year gain in the average lifespan of individuals in the United States during the twentieth century is attributed to the success of public health.

The basic public health degrees at the master's level are the Master of Public Health (M.P.H.), the Master of Science (M.S.), and the Master of Health Administration (M.H.A). At the doctoral level, there are programs that offer the Doctor of Public Health (Dr.P.H.) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

The accrediting agency of public health programs is The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). There are only 36 accredited schools of public health in the United States and each school has its own strengths and personality. Many other schools are on the path to obtaining accreditation. Public health degrees are often part of dual degree programs with medicine, law, and pharmacy. A number of MD-granting institutions and residency programs in medicine allow physicians to earn the MPH during training.

About 70% of the professionals in public health are female, 17% are international students, and 33% are minorities. In 2004, enrollments in public health programs surpassed 6,500 while applications to public health programs exceeded 25,000. The average yearly cost of education for a two-year MPH program was just over $9,000, including tuition, fees, and books.

According to the Public Health Functions Project, public health has the following functions:

    Prevents epidemics and the spread of disease

Protects against environmental hazards

Prevents injuries

Promotes and encourages healthy behaviors

Responds to disasters and assists communities in recovery

Assures the quality and accessibility of health services

The Ten Essential Public Health Services:

Monitor health status to identify community health problems

Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community

Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues

Mobilize community partnerships to identify and solve health problems

Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts

Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety

Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable

Assure a competent public health and personal health care workforce

Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services

Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.

Adopted Fall 1994, Public Health Functions Steering Committee of the Public Health Functions Project.

Examples of public health's population-based approach to health:

      1. Assures that our drinking and recreational waters are safe.

2. Prevents pollution of our air and land through enforcement of regulatory controls and management of hazardous wastes.

3. Eradicates life threatening diseases such as smallpox and polio.

4. Facilitates community empowerment to improve mental health, reduce substance abuse, and social violence.

5. Evaluates the effectiveness of clinical and community-based interventions.

6. Controls and prevents infectious diseases and outbreaks such as measles, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and Ebola virus.

7. Promotes healthy lifestyles to prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity.

8. Educates at-risk populations to reduce sexually-transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and infant mortality.

9. Assures access to cost-effective health care.

10. Reduces death and disability due to unintentional injuries through the formulation of policies designed to protect the safety of the public, such as seat belt and worker safety laws.

The three tiers of public health practice are: local, state, and federal. Local public health professionals, usually coordinated by the city or county health department, are in the best position to understand citizen's concerns, identify health problems, and define the resources needed to tackle them. State health departments have a leading role in assuring the safety of water and the food supply. State departments maintain information systems to detect health threats and assist local officials in responding to them. The federal health agencies are located in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the United States Public Health Service (PHS). These agencies include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), the Indian Health Service (IHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Where do practitioners in public health come from?

Because public health encompasses so many different specializations, applicants to public health programs come from a great variety of undergraduate majors. Currently, matriculants in programs come from 51 majors including: anthropology, architecture, biochemistry, biomedical sciences, business administration, criminal justice, education, environmental health, exercise physiology, government, community health, international relations, journalism, linguistics, medical technology, molecular and cell biology, neuroscience, nutrition, occupational therapy, pharmacology, physiology (animal), psychology, public health, public policy, social work, theatre, and zoology.

Public health professionals can range from being a biomedical scientist researching a new disease like SARS or monkey pox, a health educator working with teenage moms, or an epidemiologist studying the environmental risk factors associated with certain cancers. Public health professionals must have an understanding of informatics, must be able to communicate effectively to various audiences, and must be able to understand how to work with culturally diverse communities. Professionals in public health want to make a difference. For more information, students are urged to contact the Association of Schools of Public Health.

Employment outlook

The health issues that we hear daily in the news will require involvement of individuals in public health: obesity, AIDS, smoking, handgun control, chronic diseases, SARS, West Nile virus, increases in uninsured health, and bioterrorism.

Other sources of information about public health.


American Public Health Association
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
You Can Make A Difference
, an ASPH minority recruitment brochure.

Published Material:

Advancing Healthy Populations: The Pfizer Guide to Careers in Public Health. 2002. The Pfizer Guide Series, Pfizer Inc. (see Career Guides Public Health).
Public Health Issue, June 2003 issue of The Advisor, the quarterly of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP).

For more information

For information on the Master of Public Health at Missouri State University, contact:

Dr. Dalen M. Duitsman, Coordinator 417-836-5550,

Department of Kinesiology
Missouri State University
Springfield, Missouri 65897

For additions or corrections to this website, contact:

Dr. Colette Witkowski, 417-836-5603, Professional Bldg., Room 404

Department of Biomedical Sciences
Missouri State University