Public Health vs. Epidemiology

Master of Science in Health Informatics Program Page

To understand the relationship between public health and epidemiology, public health is a broader field that not only investigates the causes and distributions of disease, but also applies this scientific knowledge to develop programs, educate the public about making healthy choices, drafting policies, and ensuring people have access to healthcare to mitigate health problems at an individual and societal level. Epidemiology is the science of public health, often conducted behind the scenes to help inform evidence-based practice in public health.  Epidemiology includes investigating the causes of diseases and disorders, patterns of outbreak, understanding how these conditions impact individuals and communities, and taking steps to help stop their spread. 

In recent years, public health and epidemiology have received a lot of attention. While the worldwide pandemic certainly put these two areas of study on the radar of many, public health specialists and epidemiologists have a long history of keeping people up-to-date on the latest health concerns and precautions. 

If you’re considering a career in either public health or epidemiology, both can provide you with a rewarding trajectory that serves communities in a variety of ways. Learn more about these areas of focus, as well as the skills and education required for a career in either public health or epidemiology. 

What Is Public Health?

Public health is a broad field focused on prevention and improving the health of populations.  Those in the public health sector report on scientific research, distributing accurate information around diseases or behaviors that pose health risks. Public health can encompass a variety of objectives, ranging from developing vaccination programs to prevent the spread of infectious disease to developing nutritious school lunch programs that set children up for a healthy start in life. 

“While a doctor treats individuals, public health looks at the health of a community,” observes Georges Benjamin, MD., Executive Director of the American Public Health Association (APHA). “We research the risk of disease and injury in a population and take action to prevent them before they occur. Our early successes help the spread of infectious diseases by improving housing and sanitation. With a greater understanding of health, well-being, and equity, we introduced prevention and early protection activities that helped increase life expectancy by more than 20 years.”

As an area of study and expertise, public health melds a devotion to the health of people and communities alongside scientific research and communication skills to advocate for actions that can help increase the quality of life and longevity for many. 

Frances B., Class of 2015

What Does a Public Health Professional Do?

A public health professional works in a variety of settings, ranging from schools to hospitals to government agencies. These individuals promote healthy behaviors, as well as work to shape public policy that puts research into action. They also create and advocate for programs to improve health conditions and outcomes for people in a community. 

Public health offers a variety of intriguing and rewarding career options for qualified professionals. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a steady uptick in interest in public health degrees. In March 2020, applications to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) increased by 23%. The following year, applicants increased by an additional 40%. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for positions in the public health sphere is anticipated to increase by 12% before 2031 – much faster than average across all occupations. 

Career Paths in Public Health

Public health is a diverse field that allows professionals to share their unique talents in a variety of ways, from a scientific and research-oriented direction, as well as an educational and policy-making path. For those looking to break into a career in public health, there are a variety of jobs that can put you on track to provide a valuable service to the community and make a difference in the lives of others. 

Health Educator

A health educator can be a great entry point into the realm of public health. These individuals create strategies to inform individuals and communities about healthcare services and other resources available, as well as educate them on healthy behaviors. They can work in schools, hospitals, healthcare centers, and public agencies. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for health educators is $60,600. In terms of job outlook, the anticipated growth for health educators is projected to grow by 12% before 2031. 

Public Health Administrator

A public health administrator works in a variety of capacities to amplify messaging around public health programs. They evaluate community health issues, then craft and coordinate outreach with healthcare providers and other community organizations to educate communities about various health concerns. They train others within their department, as well as raise funding for grants and programs. In addition to driving public relations and outreach efforts, public health administrators create and release reports on the effectiveness of various programs and initiatives. A public health administrator earns an average annual salary of $71,834. 

Environmental Health Specialist

An environmental health specialist works to uncover how various environmental factors – ranging from hazardous materials to polluted drinking water and more – impact people. Using scientific methods, they collect and analyze data to identify environmental threats, then work to create preventive measures or steps to remediate these issues. According to the BLS, an environmental health specialist earns a mean annual wage of $83,820. 

What Is Epidemiology?

Epidemiology falls under the banner of public health, but is an investigative science focused on diseases and disorders – studying them, as well as helping to understand their origins and containing their spread. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, epidemiology is the “branch of medical science which treats epidemics,” however, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Library of Medicine acknowledges that the definition of epidemiology has changed over time, even within the past 40 years. 

In 1978, epidemiology was defined as “a method of reasoning about disease that deals with biological inference derived from observations of disease phenomena in population groups.” 

By 2017, the definition of epidemiology had evolved, with the World Health Organization (WHO) defining it as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events (including disease), and the application of this study to the control of diseases and other health problems. Various methods can be used to carry out epidemiological investigations: surveillance and descriptive studies can be used to study distribution; analytical studies are used to study determinants.” 

Studying hard for a medical degree during the COVID-19 pandemic

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

An epidemiologist takes a scientific approach to investigating diseases and disorders. They collect and analyze a diverse range of data and information. This can include taking blood samples, as well as conducting interviews and surveys to better understand the causes and factors of specific health conditions. More broadly, epidemiologists can also study the effects of violence, crime, as well as such conditions as self-harm, the effects of medicalization, and injuries. They develop an understanding of how these conditions impact individuals, as well as society and even the economy. 

Epidemiologists share their findings with those in the health sector, as well as government entities and the public. They also plan public health studies and write grant proposals to fund further research. 

Epidemiologists can work in a variety of environments, including laboratories, universities, and with federal, state, and local governments. These individuals can specialize in one or more areas of epidemiology, focusing on such areas as infectious diseases, genetic epidemiology, chronic diseases, and even veterinary epidemiology. 

The BLS cites that epidemiologists earn a median annual salary of $78,830. The need for epidemiologists is expected to increase 26% before 2031 – significantly faster than average across all occupations. 

For those looking to begin a career in epidemiology, there are a variety of entry-level positions that can allow you to break into the field. Data collection positions, data entry, census work, and contact tracing – identifying, evaluating, and managing people who have been exposed to an infectious disease to help prevent further transmission – can help you get a foothold in epidemiology before advancing to more specialized positions. 

Career Paths in Epidemiology

Epidemiology offers a wealth of career opportunities for scientifically-minded individuals who have an innate curiosity and commitment to the health of the population at-large. Some potential career paths include: 

Infectious Disease Epidemiologist

In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important work done by infectious disease epidemiologists. Epidemiologists use scientific methods to understand the causes and effects of communicable diseases on populations. 

Infectious disease epidemiologists study such transmittable illnesses like COVID-19, HIV, and the flu. They leverage a variety of data sources to model information, as well as conduct field and laboratory studies to uncover more about diseases and identify opportunities for prevention. The average annual salary for an infectious disease epidemiologist is $136,537. 

Chronic Disease Epidemiologist

A chronic disease epidemiologist works to find the causes of such common chronic diseases as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and others. In addition to understanding various causes of diseases that impact a sizable portion of the population, they leverage these findings to promote efforts to reduce or prevent occurrences. It’s estimated that a chronic disease epidemiologist may earn an average annual salary of $85,514.  

Field epidemiologist

Field epidemiologists are the “disease detectives” who are called to the scene of an active outbreak investigation. They work to identify the source of exposure, first determining whether an outbreak of disease is due to a biological or chemical exposure. They then implement initial control measures to stop the spread, develop a communication plan to help protect the public and continue to gather data about the origin of the outbreak and its spread. Once a chemical or pathogen has been identified in a laboratory, control measures are implemented to stop the outbreak.

Once under control or eradicated and the investigation is complete, a field epidemiologist completes a detailed report about the investigation – including the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” of an epidemic – so that the public health community can be aware of similar circumstances that might lead to outbreaks in their own communities. Based on evidence collected, they create strategies to prevent outbreaks or contain them quickly. A field epidemiologist earns approximately $85,512 per year. 

How to Start a Career in Public Health or Epidemiology

The first step on the road to a career in public health or epidemiology is to earn a degree. Obtaining a bachelor’s in public health can help you start your journey, giving you the option to gain experience working in the public health arena, or completing a master’s or Ph.D. in public health or epidemiology, depending on what you plan to specialize in within public health.

2 people posing in hallway of office

Earn a Degree in Public Health

Earning your degree in public health can lead to a long and rewarding career for individuals who want to use their knowledge and curiosity to create healthier outcomes for people, unravel the mysteries behind what causes certain health conditions and how to prevent them. National University offers both a Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree, as well as a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, helping you start or further your career in the field.  

NU’s Bachelor of Science in Public Health Program will prepare you to enter a career in public health, equipping you with the knowledge and skills needed to mitigate public health crises and develop an understanding of health behaviors and their impact at state, local, national, and global levels. Once completed, graduates can apply for the Certified Health Education Specialists (CHES) exam offered by the National Commission on Health Education Credentialing, Inc. 

For those who wish to further their studies, NU’s Master of Public Health program accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). Earning a degree from a CEPH-accredited program can expand your job opportunities, as some employers – such as the US Public Health Service, some state and local government agencies, and the US military — only consider prospects who are graduates of a CEPH-accredited program for certain positions. Additionally, enrolling in a CEPH-accredited school can unlock fellowship opportunities, as well as offer a clear pathway to obtaining a Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential and taking the CPH exam.

NU’s Master of Public Health program allows candidates to concentrate their studies in such degree specializations as: 

  • Specialization in Health Promotion: An MPH in Health Promotion prepares students for a career in public health, with an emphasis on planning, implementing, and evaluating community-wide health programs. 
  • Specialization in Health Administration: The Health Administration specialization of NU’s MPH program prepares students for a leadership role in a variety of settings – from public to private healthcare. The MPH in Healthcare Administration equips candidates with knowledge of the financing and organizational skills behind public health services to enhance health outcomes throughout a community. 
  • Specialization in Community Mental Health: According to the American Psychological Association, the past several years have seen an increase in the need for mental health services throughout the US, including rising numbers of those seeking help for anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, and trauma. With this in mind, the MPH in Community Mental Health prepares students to lead the way in planning, implementing, and evaluating community-wide programs to enhance mental health and address this growing epidemic. 

If you’re considering a career in public health, National University can help you earn your degree and the skills needed to drive positive outcomes for your community and beyond. 

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