Public health professionals are devoted to a wide variety of causes that encompass everything from promoting healthy lifestyles, educating communities on wellness, and improving sanitation, to detecting, preventing, and controlling disease outbreaks, reducing gun violence, and developing safe housing.
“The field of public health is expansive and encompasses many different disciplines,” says Neil Maniar, PhD, director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health program. “We’re starting to see the importance of public health across a number of different sectors today.”
Over the last decade, three major trends have led to emerging opportunities in public health, Maniar says. These include a new focus on how an individual’s community impacts their health and health outcomes; the passage of and political climate surrounding the Affordable Care Act (ACA); and the rise of the health technology field.
“Because the field of public health is so broad, individuals can pursue a variety of career paths in a number of industries,” he says. “There’s really never been a better time than now to pursue a career in public health.”
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Here’s a look at the three major trends spawning new careers in public health and the job possibilities that are emerging from them.
Social Determinants of Health
Social determinants of health are conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, and play that impact a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).
The five key determinants, according to ODPHP, include:
- Economic stability: issues such as employment, food insecurity, housing instability, and poverty
- Education: early childhood education and development, enrollment in higher education, high school graduation, language, and literacy
- Social community and context: includes civic participation, discrimination, incarceration, and social cohesion
- Health and health care: including access and access to primary care, as well as health literacy
- Neighborhood and built environment: access to healthy foods, crime and violence, environmental conditions, and quality of housing
Attention to these five determinants have created a number of job opportunities, Maniar says. “People in this sector want to understand how housing and education and economic development really drive health outcomes,” he says. “There’s been an explosion of opportunity in this arena, which has opened up partnerships with a variety of organizations in these different sectors.”
Some of these new career possibilities include community health workers, community health specialists, directors of community benefits, case managers, resource specialists, public health managers, and community health workers, Maniar says. These professionals may work within housing departments, schools, hospitals, and community health centers.
The Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), signed into law in 2010, was the U.S. healthcare system’s most significant regulatory overhaul since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Its goals, according to HealthCare.gov, include making health insurance more affordable and available to more people; expanding the Medicaid program; and supporting medical care delivery methods designed to lower the costs of health care.
“Coming out of the ACA is this focus on prevention as the best way to not only save money in the long term but to have better health outcomes for individuals,” Maniar says. “This has led to expansion in the field of public health.”
Careers emerging from the ACA include epidemiologists, researchers, and consultants who partner with hospitals, health manager positions, directors of community health, and community benefit managers, Maniar says.
“Healthcare is so political right now,” says Alison Gillis, assistant program director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health Program. “There’s a real need for people who understand the bills and their implications, and can walk the line and talk to people who might not have an understanding of why certain provisions are really important from a public health practice.”
Large tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google all have or will soon have a large footprint in the healthcare and public health space, Maniar says. This is driven by the wearable device industry and the rise in apps that developers are creating to tackle or manage health conditions.
“Today we have video games that are designed to help individuals manage chronic illnesses, learn about prevention, and engage in their health efforts,” he says. “We are better understanding and innovating around ways to leverage technology to tackle big public health problems—and all of this has created opportunities.”
Many of these jobs at the intersection of health and technology are engineering roles, such as directors of health engineering, Maniar says. Other emerging jobs in this field include “innovation” in the title, such as innovation managers and innovation specialists, as well as data specialists who comb through large data sets to understand many of our most pressing public health problems, he says.
“Some of the questions these people might tackle include how to manage the health of our elders who consume a lot of healthcare,” Gillis says. “How can we create smart homes that enable people to stay in their homes while being safe? How can we develop automated pill dispensers to ensure that the elderly are adhering to their medical regiment?”
These trends are serving as a catalyst for a variety of emerging careers in public health, and pose exciting possibilities for qualified individuals, Maniar says.
“In this rapidly evolving public health space, individuals have the opportunity to define the work they want to do within the field and create their own space because there’s so much need for public health specialists,” he says. “It’s an exciting time because in many instances, you can create your own space and tailor the job to your areas of interest.”