Why public health?

Healthier individuals are more economically productive. They take fewer sick days, perform better at work, and are far more likely to start small businesses or other entrepreneurial ventures. And because they tend to live longer, they're incentivized to make better decisions based on positive long-term outcomes that benefit themselves and their community. 

There's also an important bridge between public health and education, although the relationship is better contextualized as a kind of feedback loop. For example, societies with better public health produce healthier children. These healthier children are more likely to attend school regularly, have higher concentration levels, and are less prone to developing learning and physical impairments that may impact their education. And as more education leads to more positive economic outcomes, societies start to produce greater resources that can then be invested in better public health measures for the next generation of children. 

How public health works

Research by Public Health England finds the number of cigarette smokers in the UK continues to fall. Moreover, those who still smoke are showing an increasing desire to quit. A series of public health measures largely drove these changing habits. They included a ban on smoking in the workplace and enclosed spaces, plain packaging, and graphic advertising campaigns that highlighted the adverse health effects of cigarette smoke. The figures show the effectiveness of public health’s ability to drive social change and how it can help tackle the UK's next ‘big’ health challenge. 

Obesity is common in the UK, as it is in the USA. Since 2007, the number of obese people in the UK has almost doubled. 28% of the adult population is now obese, with another 35% classed as overweight (although those definitions are sometimes contested). And with obesity linked to a range of short and long-term health problems, health experts have called these figures a ticking time bomb for the British health service.

As well as getting more physically active, the UK needs to change its eating habits. It needs to move away from cheap, processed food, larger portions, sugary drinks, and come up with real-world solutions to the underlying issues associated with comfort eating. Thankfully, the UK is already taking measures. These are based on the ‘whole system approach’, which had so much success in the Netherlands. Rather than simply educating the individual to make better choices, the whole system approach makes systematic changes in all areas of society to create a much healthier environment.

For example, some local authorities have already banned fast-food restaurants from opening within 400 meters of a school. Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, outlined more plans when he addressed the International Conference on Obesity in January last year. He said, "We're tackling everything from reformulation of foods, to calorie labeling in restaurants, to restricting advertising and promotion of junk food, to encouraging schools to adopt a ''daily mile" so children are more active."

Careers in public health

Public health splits into three main areas: health protection, health improvement, and public health. Here's a quick look at each of their remits: 

  • Health protection: This keeps people safe and healthy by minimizing environmental health issues. Health protection helps regulate the control of dangerous chemicals, maintains food safety standards, and also includes things like biodefence. 

  • Health improvement: This looks at preventative measures that can reduce the chances of developing health issues. These are mainly focused on education and encouraging best practices, such as regular exercise and a healthier diet.

  • Healthcare public health: Ensuring everyone has access to high-quality health services. This kind of work is usually done through government agencies or charitable organizations.

Public health workers can find roles in government, national or private health services, NGOs, charities, or higher education and research. And there's a real mix of frontline work and more academically minded professions. For example, many healthcare graduates become health visitors. Health visitors work alongside elderly patients in their homes, helping them maintain a quality of life throughout their advancing years. Alternatively, they may work with new parents to ensure their children get the best possible start in life. Other public health workers go on to find important roles in global organizations like the United Nations or World Health Organization, where they can oversee vaccination programs in developing countries or coordinate the response to pandemics. For example, the coronavirus, which has sadly led to many infections and deaths across the globe.

Your research really matters

Postgraduate research in public health has real-world consequences, and the work you do in the lab or the library can help save millions of lives. Cardiac pacemakers, seatbelts, and the patent for fluoride toothpaste all came from graduate research programs in US universities. Moreover, public health students provide a vital layer of support to healthcare services, especially during times of crisis. Recently, graduate students in public health at the University of Arizona were answering an overflow of calls from members of the public concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, other grad students are assisting research teams develop clinical trials, better testing methods, and antiviral drugs. At Johns Hopkins University, PhD student Ensheng Donhs helped Professor Lauren Gardner built the COVID-19 Global Cases Tracker.

The continuing role of public health 

As well as managing the COVID-19 crisis, public health will play a vital role in our global recovery. Now countries are moving forward with vaccination rollouts, they need to find a balance between containing the virus and lifting restrictions on movement and business. Dr Kathy Leung, from the University of Hong Kong, led a research team looking at the effects (and after-effects) of quarantine. She said at the time, "We are acutely aware that as economic activity increases across China in the coming weeks, local or imported infection could lead to a resurgence of transmission." Managing these issues is a huge challenge. Whatever the solutions are, our public health workers will play a vital role in finding them.

The view from the frontline

Lucas Buyon, a PhD candidate at Harvard, is one of the students answering calls from nervous members of the public. And while it's a tough and stressful role, it's also helped Lucas appreciate the value of public health. He says, "There's suddenly been a burst of activism from the student body as we've realized we're all public health professionals, and we can do something about this, we can use our skills to help everyone."

Marissa Brash, chair of the Department of Public Health in Azusa Pacific University School of Nursing, is amazed at how her students have stepped up in this time of need. "I'm proud to say that I've seen students demonstrate courage and boldness to step into the challenge," says Brash. And what Brahs has seen bodes well for the future of public health. She adds, “I can see them going into the general public as liaisons who help to interpret data, provide clear communication, and work to bridge gaps in understanding legislation, policy, and recommendations from the county, state, and federal regulating bodies and public health departments."

Good public health and healthy societies go hand in hand. Public health is a crucial part of maintaining a stable society that allows every citizen the chance to live free, independent lives in dignity. And as recent events have shown us, it's there to help us overcome whatever health crisis comes our way.