Public health communications professionals must be educated in public policy, science or both, and they must demonstrate excellent communications skills. Typically, these individuals are aware of high-level policy changes and implementation plans. They make executive decisions about what information is shared with the public; decide how the information is disseminated; and accurately deliver the news to the correct audience. A career in this field can be very rewarding; these communication specialists serve the greater good by increasing awareness of public health policy.
While no government entity tracks the career growth of public health communications professionals, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does offer information applicable to reporters and journalists as a whole, which are shown in the chart below.
National Average Salary$45,120
Top Paying States
- $62,140 New York
- $61,420 Massachusetts
- $59,060 Georgia
States with Highest Employment
- 4,860 New York
- 4,540 California
- 2,480 Florida
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Working in Communications
While requirements may vary among individual employers, a bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum amount of post-secondary education required in this field. Expertise in public health requires a significant amount of specialized knowledge, and employers seek to hire candidates who are already versed in policy and implementation. Other professionals who market and write within this community may have a bachelor’s degree in journalism or communications; if so, it is frequently accompanied by an additional certification in public health or public policy.
It is important to correctly grasp the finer points of public health before attempting to share the information with the public, so most public health communications professionals have at least five years of work experience in addition to their bachelor’s degrees. As is true of any high-level communications position, on-the-job experience allows successful professionals to deftly analyze factual information, determine the best way it should be presented to the public and effectively deliver the message to a target audience.
Useful entry-level jobs generally have ‘associate’ or ‘assistant’ in the title and can be found in government, not-for-profit and advocacy organizations, healthcare facilities and consulting firms. Some positions that provide the right kind of experience to public health communications professionals might include:
- Conducting sampling for an environmental or other sciences purpose; assisting in scientific research
- A lower-level position at a healthcare communications or healthcare management company
- Government service, including the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps
- Patient liaison or hotline specialist for entities organized to serve certain patient groups, such as diabetics
- A training fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
While there is no specific credentialing requirement in place for these professionals, several are available. These industry certifications may be viewed favorably by employers, if not outright required by them. Examples of credentialing entities include the the American Medical Writer’s Association and the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing.
Technical Medical Writer
These professionals tackle the ever-challenging job of explaining science to the public. Medical technical writers are employed by publications that cater to medical professionals or to a public that is not considered to be especially familiar with the sciences. These writers may work in marketing departments, in an editorial capacity, in public relations or advertising agencies. Typical output includes journal abstracts, white papers, strategic marketing copy, regulatory instructions, conference presentations or explanatory articles for the layman.
- Clearly explain scientific practice and procedure to a variety of audiences, from medical professionals to the average website viewer
- Research professional resources to provide examples to readers, verify scientific facts and analyze trends
- Distill the important factual data out of highly technical information, and then illustrate it accurately
Aside from demonstrated writing skill, there is no degree requirement for a medical technical writer. Degrees in journalism, public policy, communications, nursing, medicine or the sciences all suffice; education in the sciences is especially valuable.
Public Health Journalist
A public health journalist reports on news and events in the public health sector. These professionals either work independently or for a publication like a newspaper, website or televised news show. Typical daily tasks include researching storylines, following leads, interviewing relevant parties and writing results in an engaging manner. Generally, public health journalists specialize in the public health arena and publish high-level information.
- Be attuned to changes, trends and new developments in public health; be able to assess which of these are important enough to develop into a story
- Present public health news accurately, compassionately and without bias
- Perform under tight deadlines and sometimes enormous pressure from the public or other media outlets
While there are no hard and fast requirements to perform this job successfully, a background in science can be very useful. Dissecting academic medical publications, interviewing specialists and recognizing the import of some public health news can be made much simpler with a background in nursing, biology or other natural sciences. A master’s degree in public policy or science isn’t required but could come in handy.
Public Health Information Officer
A public health information officer serves as a gatekeeper of information between an entity that sets policy and the public that is affected by it. These professionals may work for government agencies, public hospitals and medical universities, or local municipal government. A public information officer serves as the face of his or her employer; in times of public health crisis, this can be a very visible position in the media. Deciding what information should be released, delivering it to the public, providing news updates and answering questions are typical duties.
- Attend meetings and events where policy is set
- Develop information pipelines and procedural guides to follow in the event of a crisis
- Maintain good media and public relations
Public information officers bear an enormous responsibility in choosing how to keep the public informed of relevant health policy decisions. Consequently, a master’s degree is usually required for this position. Additionally, these professionals should be comfortable holding press conferences and appearing on camera.
The National Cancer Institute is heavily invested in public policy and public health awareness. This internship program was developed for students interested in writing about public policy and science.
Eligibility: Graduate students with a minimum GPA of 2.75