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There’s an old adage that many of today’s college students may never have even heard: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
But now that we’ve all experienced the overwhelming changes in our daily lives that accompany a global pandemic, most of us have spent time wondering how this health crisis, along with its rippling economic effects, could have been prevented.
Prevention is the cornerstone upon which public health practice is oriented. Unfortunately, our healthcare delivery system in the U.S. has historically done little to promote prevention, and public health measures as a whole have been woefully underfunded. We spend the vast majority of our healthcare dollars treating disease, and relegate preventive efforts to the sidelines.
COVID-19 has abruptly focused national attention on public health. Americans who may never have heard of concepts like epidemiological curves and social determinants of health are starting to understand how critical it is to have enough public health and public health related experts and workers. Many of us have begun to look at public health authorities as some of our most trusted guides on moving through these daunting and uncertain times.
According to the Trust for America’s Health, “Critical to protecting the public’s health is a well-trained and appropriately resourced public health workforce. Over the past decade, the public health workforce has shrunk by approximately 56,000 positions primarily due to funding issues."
In addition, this pandemic has highlighted the fact that being “healthy” involves far more than just absence of physical disease. Wellness is multidimensional and holistic, encompassing six dimensions: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual and spiritual health. For this reason, public health practice as a whole is interdisciplinary and incorporates many fields of study.
To be effective as a national system, public health requires collaboration among scientists, mathematicians, educators, economists and policy makers. And as we now wholly recognize, all health is global health and we desperately need federal and state government officials and diplomats with strong analytical, organizational and leadership skills.
Due to how profoundly our lives have changed with COVID-19, perhaps your current or incoming college student has discussed the possibility of pursuing a public health related degree or pivoting to a career track that intersects with one of the six dimensions of wellness. The American Public Health Association is a useful resource for them to start with.
Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans. They seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education and health policy. Epidemiologists typically need at least a master's degree from an accredited college or university.
Infectious disease medicine is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Infectious disease medical doctors specialize in preventing, diagnosing and treating infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. They also have extensive knowledge in immunology, epidemiology and infection control.
Microbiologists can work in a variety of contexts, including virology, environmental science, medicine and basic research, laboratory diagnostics and management, food production, and biosafety procedures, to name a few.
At all times, but particularly during crises like a pandemic, we need a robust contingent of mental health professionals like clinical and counseling psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors and therapists.
Occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals can hold varied jobs, creating safe work environments and inspecting equipment to prevent workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses.
Public health educators translate specific health knowledge into highly effective education campaigns through a variety of mediums in order to educate the broadest group of people possible. One of the biggest concerns during any public health crisis is the spread of misinformation. Health educators with foreign language skills are always highly valued.
Health policy refers to decisions, plans and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific healthcare goals within a society, defining a vision for the future with established targets. Policy advisors and analysts work in all levels of government, from county public health departments within states to federal and international agencies, such as the CDC and the W.H.O.
Public health planners work to compile information, statistics and analysis related to health issues for specific communities and populations, in order to formulate an effective healthcare policy. They look at how housing, facilities, transportation and land use affect the health of a particular area’s population.
For any student considering a public health related career, Tara C. Smith, PhD, a Professor of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health at Kent State University offers this advice:
Try to learn about the breadth of what we do. There are so many different options. I'm in epidemiology, but even in my area there are so many niches — colleagues that do modeling versus work in public health departments, clinical trials for hospitals or pharmaceutical companies, an academic like myself who focuses on research, people who study infectious disease versus chronic disease, and much more. There are many concentrations within public health: biostatistics, community and behavioral health, health management and policy, and environmental and occupational health. Think about which piece interests you most, and what degree you'd need to get there (Can you do it with a bachelor's degree? Most positions require a master's degree of some sort, be it an MPH, MS, or others, and some require a PhD or other doctoral degree). Reach out to faculty and other professionals to learn what we do so you know if it is a career you could see yourself doing.
Dr. Daniel P. Perales, Professor Emeritus at the San Jose State University Master of Public Health Program and a past president of the National Society for Public Health Education, thinks that public health programs at colleges and universities will be inundated with applicants over the next two to five years and that public health career salaries will increase as more communities invest in primary prevention. Perales shares, “There are many ways that one can work in public health in both the public and private sector with just a bachelor's degree, but students should consider completing a master of public health degree a few years after getting some experience.”
Perhaps the current pandemic will finally be enough to help our country recognize that continued cuts to public health infrastructure jeopardize not only our health but also our economy and our very way of life.
However, Dr. Perales adds, “I highly recommend that students considering a public health career look beyond the COVID-19 headlines in which the science of addressing this disease is too often blurred by political rhetoric.”
We must all remember that, when our national health focus shifts back away from COVID-19, we will still need more public health experts to continue and expand work on issues such as climate change, the opioid crisis, gun violence, decline in vaccination rates, and health equity.
Council on Education for Public Health (list of accredited graduate schools and programs)