What is Public Health, Anyway?

Healthy Living

April 6, 2021

It’s National Public Health Week! Did you forget? Or maybe you didn’t realize that it’s a thing. That’s okay. Public health doesn’t usually grab headlines on a day-to-day basis.

That said, it’s an important field full of people doing good work.

Over the last year in particular, you might’ve heard more about public health and public health professionals than you had in all your previous years combined. 

But public health pros don’t just deal with crises. 

In fact, they primarily work on improving individual communities, from a health and well-being standpoint. That means their work can go unnoticed.

And while doctors and nurses usually focus on individual patients, public health professionals work on a broader scale. Some public health initiatives benefit local communities. Others reach around the globe.

But the overall goal is the same: to help people live safer, healthier lives.

History of Public Health

The public health profession has been growing ever since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. As the pandemic raged, communities learned the value of bolstering their public health and safety departments. (Sound familiar?)

Since then, public health professionals have played a vital role in shaping policies in the U.S. and beyond.

Noteworthy examples include the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, the Mammography Quality Standards Act of 1972, and the AIDS Watch Africa initiative, which began in 2001.

When health crises hit communities, public health professionals step in and get to work.

But even when all is relatively calm, public health personnel are working to build healthy communities. And that work takes different forms.

What Public Health Professionals Do

The list of ways that public health workers make a difference could run for miles. But just to give you an idea, here’s a short list of what public health pros might do:

  • Connect people with healthcare services
  • Monitor outbreaks and other health crises in a community
  • Educate communities on various health topics
  • Advocate for safety and wellness policies
  • Research various health topics

Public health workers find jobs with federal agencies, state and local health departments, and universities, among other places. They might also partner with nonprofit organizations, hospitals, nursing homes and private businesses.

In other words, there’s no set title or industry when it comes to public health.

Jobs in Public Health

Considering the many ways that public health professionals support communities, it’s not surprising that job titles vary widely.

The following list represents just a fraction of the many public health roles available in this field.

Community Health Workers

Community health professionals stay in tune with the health needs of people in a particular region. They connect individual clients with healthcare services or community programs, too.

Community health workers also gather data about unmet health and safety needs. These can then be addressed through programs or policies. Plus, their close ties to the community create a bridge between healthcare professionals and the general public.

Environmental Health Specialists

Environmental safety doesn’t just focus on finding health hazards. They work on solving them, too.

Many environmental health specialists work for government agencies to ensure the safety and sanitation of places like nursing homes and daycares. Others might find jobs in the private sector, which could include monitoring hazardous waste management and regulatory compliance.

This work protects air, soil and water quality and improves the safety of everyday activities.


Scientists who study disease trends and patterns are called epidemiologists, a term you’re likely familiar with by now. These scientists may also do other research on what causes injuries and illness. The work that epidemiologists do contributes to policies, patient care and public safety.

During an outbreak, such as an annual flu season or the current pandemic, epidemiologists prepare critical reports. These reports help governments and the public understand the situation so they can make better decisions.

Food Safety Inspectors

Food processing and restaurant inspectors are a sub-category of environmental health professionals. And they go to great lengths to ensure the safety of the food supply

Whether they work for private businesses or government agencies, food safety inspectors may inspect processing facilities, distribution centers or food service places.

By enforcing safety regulations and doing advocacy work, food safety specialists reduce the public’s risk of getting sick from food-borne diseases.

Health Educators

Health educators, as you might expect, help communities understand certain health topics better. They do this through handouts, programs, classes or special events.

Thanks to health educators, you might gain a better understanding of certain health topics. These include nutrition, child development, exercise, drug abuse, safe sex, and first aid.

Maternal and Child Health Specialists

Pregnant women and young children also benefit from the support of public health professionals. That’s especially true for those in vulnerable populations.

Public health workers who focus on maternal and child health may connect clients to appropriate healthcare and nutrition programs. They might also provide education about childbirth, breastfeeding and baby care.

Helping children get off to a great start is an important factor in building strong, healthy communities.

Public Health Nurses

Not all nurses work in a hospital or doctor’s office. For example, in community settings, nurses may administer vaccines, conduct screenings or provide health education.

Nurses also monitor a community’s health status and work on advocating for different causes.

While nurses in hospitals and doctor’s offices work with individual patients, public health nurses support broader wellness across the populations they serve.

Public health may not be flashy, but it’s important.

You may not always notice the efforts of public health workers, but their work shapes your daily life.

Thanks in large part to the field of public health, you have safer food options, better information about different healthcare topics, and even a potentially longer lifespan.

Looking for more info or want to get involved in public health? Check out National Public Health Week activities and resources from the American Public Health Association.