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The field of public health and the practitioners who work in the field are concerned with the health of large populations. While a family doctor treats individuals, public health practitioners look at groups. For example, a public health nurse works with individuals, but in many different groups- working with families and communities as a whole, to examine public health issues and promote community awareness of them.

Practitioners in public health monitor the spread of health conditions, occupational and environmental health hazards. There are multiple specializations within the umbrella of the practice of public health; the duties, educational and training requirements vary, depending on the position as well as where the individual is working (in a governmental agency versus a nonprofit organization, for example). These professionals work with members of the public, but they also work with researchers and other government agencies, conducting and analyzing health-related research and data.

Getting Started

Working in Community Health


The education requirements for careers in the public health sector vary depending on the specialization. Community health workers – often called community health program coordinators, for example, require a bachelor’s degree in public health. Pharmacoepidemiologists on the other hand, must hold master’s degree to work in the field.

In a Bachelor of Science in Public Health program, there are often multiple tracks that a student can choose from – environmental and occupational health, health delivery or public health behaviors are just a few. In any chosen track, students can expect to complete a public health internship, study healthcare in the U.S. and principles of health education and promotion.

In master’s-level programs, students can often choose from online or on-campus Master of Public Health programs. Within MPH programs, there are a variety of concentrations as well – like public health practice, public health leadership, risk assessment or even food protection.These degree programs require significant professional experience and as such, they require fewer professional experience courses. Common courses include community partnerships and advocacy, public health law and health services evaluation.

Work Experience

Depending on the individual’s career and educational goal, work experience may be required. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that becoming an epidemiologist does not require work experience in a related field. On the other hand public nursing, students gain some work experience through internships. In fact, most public health degree programs include internships to give students on the job experience.


Licensure requirements depend on the individual’s career choice. For example, nurses must be licensed; they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) or National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). For epidemiologists, the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC) offers certification for professional epidemiologists; candidates must pass the Certification in Infection Control (CIC) exam. Community health workers and program coordinators don’t need certification or licensure, although they often have a medical or public health background.


Public Health Physician

Physicians who choose to work in public health departments and facilities may still provide individual clinical care, but they also devote more of their time to developing public health programs and initiatives. Their credentials as medical doctors uniquely qualify them to advise and author public health initiatives and provide community-wide medical advice and education. Physicians working in public health can choose to work on specific campaigns to promote preventive care. They often focus their efforts on a single community health issue like anti-smoking campaigns, veteran rehabilitation or children’s nutrition.

Main Responsibilities

  • Provide primary or ancillary medical care to patients that suffer from a specific chronic illness, come from an underserved community or are members of a high-risk group.
  • In addition to seeing patients, public health physicians often collect data, research and analysis on a specific health issue like diabetes, addiction or mental illness.
  • Identify gaps in community health education and access. Work to develop new health promotion plans for major employers, health departments or healthcare facilities.

Additional Requirements

In order to work as a public health physician, candidates must complete their MD, or Doctor of Medicine degree at an accredited medical school and pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam. Medical school typically takes four years to complete and is followed with a 1-2 year medical residency program. For physicians interested in entering public health, MD/PhD programs are recommended, but not required. Combination programs allow physicians to enter more research-intensive fields of public health, including epidemiology, biostatistics and health policy and management.

Public Health Nurse

These professionals are registered nurses who work in public health departments. They provide medical care, but they also participate in community outreach programs and work to spread the word in communities about illness and the importance of healthy habits for an entire community of individuals.

Main Responsibilities

  • Public health nurses analyze trends and risk factors in groups of individuals and design interventions to help individuals stay healthy.
  • These professionals evaluate healthcare services and help to ensure that community members learn about these services so they can take advantage of them.
  • Public health nurses provide medical care in their communities.

Additional Requirements

Nurses must have at minimum a bachelor’s degree. As part of these degree programs, aspiring nurses typically obtain work experience through internships in hospitals or medical facilities. They must be licensed through the National Council of State Licensing Boards.


  • Maternal Child Health Careers/Research Initiatives for Student Enhancement

    In this program, students can choose from work in clinical and community settings, in community engagement and advocacy or research.

    Terms of Service: 10 weeks

    Deadline: TBD for 2015

  • Public Health Policy Internship Program

    The American Public Health Association offers this internship, giving students an opportunity to work with in the Center for Public Health Policy on a variety of topics.

    Eligibility: This program is open to undergraduate and graduate-level students.

    Terms of Service: Varies

    Deadline: TBD for 2015

  • Public Health Leadership and Learning Undergraduate Student Success (PLLUSS) Program

    This program focuses on research on health disparities, urban health issues, HIV/AIDS, community health and other health topics.

    Eligibility: The Kennedy Krieger Institute offers this program for undergraduate students in public health degree programs.

    Terms of Service: Eight weeks during the summer, five hours per week during the academic year.

    Deadline: TBD for 2015

  • Public Health Internship Program

    This internship comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. Students will work in grant management, shadow and interview HRSA staff and participate in HRSA seminars.

    Eligibility: This program is open to undergraduate and graduate-level students.

    Terms of Service: Varies

    Deadline: TBD for 2015

  • Future Public Health Leaders Program

    This CDC-funded internship is designed for undergraduate students and includes a trip to the CDC. At the end of the internship, students must deliver an oral presentation and write an abstract.

    Eligibility: This program is open to U.S. citizens who are undergraduates in their junior or senior years of college. Recent graduates may also apply.

    Terms of Service: 10 weeks

    Deadline: TBD for 2015