What Is Public Health, How Does It Work and Where Does Your Career Fit In?


Starting in the early 1900s, Americans began to place greater attention on something called “public health.” Today, the working definition for public health as a field of study is, “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.” The field itself represents the convergence of a number of complementary fields working together in areas such as prevention, intervention and treatment. As you look at more info about degree plans for a master’sof public health, keep in mind the “big picture” of the field itself, how it works and where your specific career goals fit in.

Public Health
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The History of Public Health

The earliest concept of public health was tied to an understanding of how disease spreads — in a nutshell, through polluted water and inadequate waste disposal systems. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as individuals began congregating in small communities, towns and cities, these concerns ultimately resulted in a shared sewer system, public waste disposal services, use of indoor latrines and ongoing efforts to drain standing water (which allows mosquitos to breed and spread disease). The profession of the “public health nurse” was also born during this time period and the career field grew quickly due to need. More recently, public health has aimed to collect information, conduct research and provide educational health-related material to the greater general public.

The Public Health System

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the system as a whole includes a network of interrelated public, private and voluntary organizations all working together to deliver what the CDC calls “essential health services.” The following organizations all play their part in delivering public health services at the local, statewide, regional and nationwide levels.

  • Public health agencies
  • Public safety agencies
  • Health care providers
  • Human service/charity organizations
  • Arts/recreation organizations
  • Education/youth development organizations
  • Economic/philanthropic organizations
  • Environmental organizations/agencies

As well, a diverse secondary collection of interrelated agencies and organizations lend further support to the public health field. These entities include environment and safety agencies, centers for people with substance abuse problems and addictions, mental health professional centers, nonprofit organizations, clinics and hospitals, schools and even businesses.

Essential Health Services

The CDC has defined 10 essential health services that are central to the successful fulfillment of public health initiatives in any community, jurisdiction, state or territory.

  • Enforce public health regulations and laws.
  • Link people in need to care providers.
  • Assure the public health workforce is competent.
  • Evaluate effectiveness of public health services.
  • Monitor health status on an ongoing basis.
  • Investigate and diagnose health hazards and problems.
  • Use the public health system to inform, educate and empower people.
  • Facilitate community partnerships to identify, assess and ease health concerns.
  • Develop public health policies and plans to support other health initiatives.
  • Continually research solutions to health issues.

Core Functions

Each of the 10 essential health services falls under one of fourcore functions:

  • Assurance.Assurance as a core function includes public health law enforcement, efforts to connect people who need care with health resources, overseeing a competent health workforce and continually evaluating the effectiveness of health resources and programs.
  • Assessment. Assessment as a core function encompasses ongoing health monitoring, diagnosis and investigation of health threats, issues and problems.
  • Policy Development. Policy development as a core function includes information, education, empowerment and ongoing partnerships between national, regional and local health organizations, agencies and volunteers.
  • Research. Research as a core function also encompasses each facet of the other three core functions.

Your Public Health Career

As a future public health professional, each one of the 10 essential health services and four core functions represents an area of the public health field in which you may find a fulfilling career. Reviewing each in detail can offer insight into where you might find a good fit for your aptitudes, skills and career interests. You can also use this overview of public health to select a degree plan and electives, choose internships and associations to join and tailor your networking efforts in a way that will best support your public health career aspirations.

About the Author: Karen Harvey studied public health and earned her master’s degree two years ago. She now works in Washington, D.C., assisting with the development and revision of public health policy.


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